Israel spraying toxins over Palestinian crops in Gaza

An Israeli agricultural aircraft sprayed herbicides onto farmland along the eastern border in Gaza [Adel Hana/AP]
Khan Younis, Gaza Strip– On January 7, a low-flying agricultural aircraft sprayed herbicides on to Palestinian farmlands along the eastern border, eradicating or damaging up to 162 hectares of crops and farmland along the Israeli border fence.

“Herbicides are sprayed in high concentrations. Thus, they remain embedded in the soil, and then find their way to the water basin. This constitutes a real hazard for the population,” said Anwar Abu Assi, manager of the chemical laboratory at the Ministry of Agriculture.

The sprayed areas belong to Israel’s unilaterally imposed and poorly delineated “buffer” or “no-go zone”.

The zone, which amounts to an estimated 17 percent of the entire territory of the Gaza Strip and a third of its agricultural lands, erodes into the Strip’s most vital and fertile soils.

Yousef Shahin, 40, was having enough trouble sustaining his farmland when, last week, an Israeli raid targeted the water tank that supplied his farm and neighbouring farms in the al-Faraheen area east of Khan Younis.

The tank and collection system had cost Shahin and his neighbours some $15,000. Shahin said governmental support was lacking.”Without support, we can never reconstruct the system again. We don’t have running water for irrigation; I think we lost this season.”

The Israeli army’s move had added another element to the suffering of Shahin and his fellow farmers.

With the Strip being merely five kilometres wide in some areas, a few hundred metres prove essential to the Strip’s food security. Over the past few months, Israeli soldiers have killed at least 16 Palestinians who entered the zone, most of them protesters who were shot at by snipers while participating in demonstrations near the fence.

Furthermore, scores of casualties have been reported among farmers who were merely tending to or approaching their lands. “We had to jeopardise our lives daily growing these crops; now all our efforts are in vain,” said Shahin while examining a new implant of spinach.

He lost crops that included spinach, peas, parsley and beans. Whether or not his new endeavours to cultivate will succeed remains unknown.

Farmers confirm that the damages of the latest spraying extend beyond the so-called “buffer zone”, as the winds carried the chemicals further inside the Strip. They also fear consequences of such materials may affect their lands in the long run.

Abu Assi explained that each herbicide or pesticide has a safety period that needs to be observed before attempting to grow new crops. At such high concentrations, he fears the lands are likely to constitute a hazard for a long time.

An Israeli army official cited “security reasons” as justification.

During the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, the agricultural sector sustained losses and damages of up to $550m. Some 14,000 hectares were razed and destroyed; thousands of hectares of crops were also lost because farmers were unable to reach their lands amid the fighting.

A few days ago, Israeli warplanes bombed Gaza’s main agricultural experiment station, causing $300,000-worth of damages and destroying the station’s building, laboratories, vehicles and a large power generator.

The station developed new seeds and strains for use by local farmers. Bombed and completely destroyed during the 2014 war, Israel seems insistent on keeping the station out of service, effectively stifling every Palestinian attempt to attain self-sufficiency or independence, even agriculturally.

The station’s manager, Shaher al-Rifi, says that the facility is currently 70 percent out of service. With the Israeli restrictions on imports of tractors and agricultural machinery, it is likely to remain so for a long time to come.

Adel Atallah, a general director at the agriculture ministry, explains that the whole agricultural sector has for years been running on old machines. “Domestic farmers face problems trying to replenish anything that goes out of service. What isn’t banned is stalled at the crossings by Israel.”

The troubles facing the agricultural sector in Gaza span a wide myriad of difficulties. Irrigation is disturbed by the continuous power interruptions, which sometimes last more than 12 hours a day. Farmers depend on power generators to pump water, and the costs of fuel add another factor to their economic vulnerability.


This report was originally posted here

Gaza’s crumbling healthcare system

The roof cave-in at Shifa was just the latest manifestation of Gaza’s ongoing health crisis [Ahmed Abdelall/Al Jazeera]
Gaza City – Zinat al-Jundi was in her bed in the maternity ward at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital when chunks of cement and concrete began to fall on to a nearby bed, occupied by a mother who had just given birth.

“My roommate had just moved her baby to make the bed when a block of concrete fell, right where the baby was,” Jundi told Al Jazeera. “It was a miracle that we were not hurt.”

The debris fell into their room after the building’s concrete roof caved in last month, causing panic throughout the facility as it was evacuated in a hurry.

The incident, however, was far from unforeseen: Used daily by thousands of people, the 60-year-old building – part of the complex that makes up Shifa hospital – had long been showing signs of disrepair, as cracks crept into the walls and ceilings.

The roof cave-in at Shifa was just the latest manifestation of Gaza’s ongoing health crisis, as the besieged territory struggles to provide adequate care to its 1.8-million population.

Several Gaza Strip hospitals are six decades old. Nasser hospital, the main facility serving the southern Khan Younis district, was built under Egyptian rule in the late 1950s and named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president.

Three of the five main buildings at Shifa are from the same era, and two are now collapsing: In addition to the obstetrics building, the internal medicine building was evacuated four months ago after engineers warned that a collapse was imminent.

The building housing Shifa’s maternity ward contained 93 beds and handled about 70 deliveries a day. Also in the building were a gynaecology ward, an outpatient clinic and a neonatal intensive care unit that received cases from throughout the Gaza Strip.

Two private hospitals in Gaza are now helping to manage the cases that otherwise would have been directed to Shifa.

Medhat Abbas, director general of the Shifa complex, told Al Jazeera that even before the cave-in, patients in the ward sometimes had to stay in the hallways due to overcrowding. Attempts were made to secure funding from international agencies for a new building, he said, but to no avail.

“We alerted everyone and provided situational updates,” Abbas said. “No one listened.”

Around $10m is needed to replace the two crumbling buildings at the Shifa complex, he added – but who would finance these projects remains unclear. Tens of thousands of former Hamas employees in Gaza have gone without their full salaries for months, and the consensus government in Ramallah has shied away from managing Gaza’s crises.

Even if funds were secured, progress could be further stalled by Israeli restrictions on building materials entering the territory.

Munther Ghazal, the managing surgeon at Shifa’s department of gynaecology and obstetrics, could not conceal his frustration at the situation.

“You cannot have patients, operation rooms and the neonatal ICU scattered at different areas across the city,” he told Al Jazeera. “This has to be temporary.”

The frailties of Gaza’s health sector are deep and diverse. One year ago, maintenance and cleaning companies went on strike after failing to receive their salaries, and the ensuing financial crunch forced hospitals to stop serving patients’ meals. Charity organisations stepped in to help fill the void.

Shifa’s old and rusty laundry machine stopped working more than a year ago, and since then, sheets, robes and gowns have to be carted 30km away each day to Nasser hospital for washing. Meanwhile, vacancies left by retiring employees have not been filled: For the past three years, there has been no significant, permanent recruitment in Gaza’s public sector.

Consequently, despite hundreds of vacancies, scores of newly graduated doctors, nurses, technicians and secretaries remain unemployed.

Subhi Skaik, medical director at the Shifa compound, estimates that the hospital runs with 20 percent less staff than it needs – and smaller hospitals are probably suffering more, he added.

Gaza’s health ministry and the Palestinian Medical Council, which oversees training programmes, has offered new graduates the chance to fill these vacancies without pay in exchange for experience certificates and the possibility of employment down the road.

Dozens of people have taken advantage of the programme but, with no permanent solution on the horizon, dozens more have emigrated or are seeking a chance to leave Gaza.

Movement restrictions have led to a further deterioration in the quality of services in Gaza, Skaik told Al Jazeera.

“Medical education is a continuous process. We need scholarships and delegate exchanges to update our knowledge and improve our skills and experience,” he said. “Dozens of doctors lost grants of higher education because they were not able to join their programmes in time … Nonetheless, we hold regular conferences and have resorted to online lectures with foreign experts and tutors.”

Several specialties, such as pediatric cardiac surgery and radiation therapy, are missing from Gaza hospitals altogether, either due to a lack of specialists or a lack of equipment, forcing patients to be transferred to Israel or the occupied West Bank.

Shifa’s Prince Nayef Oncology Centre, built in 2005 with a price tag of more than $5m, has yet to become operational due to an Israeli prohibition on equipment needed for radiotherapy and cancer diagnostics.

Jundi, the patient from Shifa’s maternity ward, said it is time for the government to step up: “I call on President Abu Mazen and everyone to save us … We have nowhere to go now.”


This content was originally posted here

‘Gaza’s new generation of children only knows stress, wars and aggression’

If you keep depriving children from Gaza of everything, eventually some of them will join armed conflict and Israel will have no one to blame but themselves, Belal Dabour, a Palestinian doctor from Gaza, told RT.

The Israeli Air Force launched an airstrike on Hamas bases on Saturday, March 12, in which a 10-year-boy who lived next to one of the targets was killed, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said, according to AFP. His six-year-old sister died later of her injuries, local media reported.

RT interviewed Dr. Belal Dabour, who assisted many injured during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, for his take on the situation.

RT: Do you see many children injured by Israeli attacks and how are they affected by the situation?

Belal Dabour: We have had a complete decade of blockade on Gaza. For 10 years people have suffered three major operations and continuous chronic stress… Everyone who was born in 2006 and afterwards, we have a new generation who has only witnessed stress, wars, and aggressions. They have basically never experienced normal life…

You would expect this whole generation that they have an appraisal system that’s geared up to face wars, to face continuous lack of electricity, the stress on their parents, and the lack for their safety, for their parents’ safety. This would reflect on basically everything: how they play, how they see the outside world, how they look at cartoons on TV, how they expect people to act to their childhood, their ideas, their impressions from everything. Certainly, everything is affected by these 10 years. And even me, I am an adult – in 2006, I was 16 years old – and still I feel a lot of my reflexes, how I see the world has changed a lot over the last decade.

RT: Children’s brains are more sensitive and therefore more vulnerable. How is their mental state affected by such incidents? Do they tend to join Hamas, for example, to get revenge on their attackers?

BD: Children are the out-product of their environment. Everything that you hear: Why you don’t have electricity to see your favorite cartoons? Because of the siege. And who is conducting the siege? Israel. So, that is block one. Who killed your friend? It is Israel. So, it is another point. And it keeps piling up. Eventually some of those are going to decide to take action themselves without being Hamas or someone else. Hamas is not the main topic here – anyone who would give them the idea, the opportunity to defend themselves, to prove to the world that they matter. When you keep depriving them of everything… When they grow up – I am not saying everyone will join armed conflict – but eventually some of them will and Israel will have no one to blame but themselves.

RT: Is there any way to reduce casualties at least among minors in this ongoing conflict?

BD: I witnessed the Operation Protective Edge in 2014 at first hand; I was working at the Al-Shifa Hospital.  And I have seen virtually hundreds, maybe thousands over the 51 days of war, many of them, maybe up to 30-40 percent were children. Here in Gaza we are living in an enclave, it’s an open-air prison, we have no shelters, no alarming systems, it’s a very crowded area. I think there is absolutely no way to reduce casualties among children. But what can we do is to provide care for them after the hostilities are suspended, for example, psychiatric support to help them live their childhood afterwards. And the best thing of course is to lift the siege, but I think it is beyond the scope of our discussion right now.


This interview was initially posted here

What I learned from Gaza’s first TEDx

Speakers brought to light several issues facing Palestinians who live under harsh Israeli occupation [Facebook: TEDxShujaiya]
Gaza – TEDx finally arrived in the besieged Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians there had some incredible insights.

For several years, Palestinians in Gaza dreamed of hosting their first TEDx event, and on October 29 they were finally able to do it.

The event was called TEDxShujayea, named after the neighbourhood which bore the brunt of Israel’s deadliest attacks on the Gaza Strip last year.

Shujayea was effectively levelled to the ground in what rights groups have documented as one of the worst human rights violations during the 51-day war.

The event featured 11 speakers showcasing the Gaza Strip’s intellectuals.

Speakers ranged from university professors to university students, young self-employed individuals and freelancers, as well as artists and engineers.

TED rules dictated that the audience for the first event should not exceed 100 people.

Al Jazeera was able to gain access to the exclusive event, and has gathered the seven main themes TEDxShujayea brought to light:

‘Shujayea is now the epitome of resurrection that refuses to kneel to Israel’s barbarity,’ Refaat Alareer told Al Jazeera [Facebook: TEDxShujayea]
1- Shujayea has become an icon.

An icon of resistance, of resilience, of hope, and of life.

Israel’s attempts to eradicate this neighbourhood and kill its spirit have failed.

“Shujayea refuses to be defeated. Shujayea is now the epitome of resurrection that refuses to kneel to Israel’s barbarity,” said Refaat Alareer, one of the key speakers, and a resident of Shujayea.

Refaat’s brother was killed and his family house was destroyed in the summer attacks of 2014.

“I am participating to give voice to my birthplace and the fallen ones of Shujayea whose love of Palestine we must promote,” he added.

2- Palestinian youth are taking the lead.

Palestinian youth have begun to lead the discussion [Facebook: TEDxShujayea]
The TEDxShujayea event was put together by two dozen organisers and volunteers: The oldest being 25 years old, and the youngest only 12.

They come from different backgrounds, but their diversity became an asset rather than a liability.

Two things to take note: The youth expressed their frustration with the business-as-usual workings of Palestinian politics, and are now taking matters into their own hands, starting with leading the conversation.

For a long time, those young people were restrained by political divisions, but they are now breaking away from that.

“To bring about change, we need to influence the masses. We want to be the change we want to see in Palestine,” Asem Alnabeh, an event organiser, said.

3- Defying stereotypes, everyone contributes.

Hashim Ghazal, who is deaf, used a sign-language interpreter to talk about how leading a successful life, defying stereotypes, and overcoming disability is a metaphor for Gaza.

Despite the siege, aggression, internal division, and the many hardships, Gaza shows that hope can indeed be found in the darkest places.

Despite Palestinians in Gaza facing hardships in virtually all aspects of their life due to the illegal Israeli-Egyptian siege, some speakers like Hashim Ghazal showed that there is always a way to offer something to others [Facebook: TEDxShujayea]
4- Finding hope in the tiniest of cracks.

Ahmed Alfaleet, a freed Palestinian prisoner who spent 19 years in Israel’s jails, pointed out the little regard people have for things that are taken for granted; how seemingly trivial objects are not so trivial when they are no longer in reach.

Alfaleet talked about how Palestinians in Israeli prisons are deprived of basic rights, from merely having the ability to look at the moon to eating regular food or communicating with their families.

To fight Israel’s suffocating measures, the prisoners, Alfaleet emphasised, found hope in the tiniest of cracks.

5- Palestinians in Gaza have plenty of stories worth telling.

Whether told in the form of an article, a video, or even at an event like TEDx, a story untold is a dead story. Stories give power to the people.

Refaat Alareer’s speech, Tell me a Story, highlighted this point: Palestinians must not let the stories of their parents and grandparents die out. That will allow the narrative of the other to take control.

With examples from Africa and Canada, Alareer explained the necessity of owning our narrative. The people’s narrative does not need to be marginalised by internal Palestinian politics nor should it be determined by the elite.

“My mom made me the man I am because of her stories; and my grandmother made me love my homeland because of her stories,” Alareer noted in his speech.

6- Palestinian youth have become successful at addressing the world directly.

In recent years, people have started hearing from Palestinians rather than about Palestinians. TEDxShujayea has shown that they are also very much interested in life in Palestine beyond the fire and the smoke.

The way people from around the world interacted with the event was, simply put, amazing. Many sent messages of support and solidarity. On Twitter, there were 3,000 tweets with a reach and impressions of nearly 14 million.

Having said that, however:

7- It’s time Palestinians spoke to themselves, too.

“We wanted to show a different picture of Gaza, not only to the outside world, but to Gaza [Palestinians] themselves, too,” Roba Abumarzouk, a TEDx organiser, wrote on her Facebook account.

Palestinians need a restored faith in their capabilities, strengths and ingenuity. TEDxShujayea was a step in that direction, a successful one to be sure, but it needs to be seen in the context of intra-Palestinian communication. Palestinians, more than anything else, need to talk to Palestinians.

This article first appeared on Aljazeera English on 05 Nov 2015, here

Why I write

“Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1. Sheer egoism.
Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

3. Historical impulse.
Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4. Political purpose.
– Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

From an essay by George Orwell.

A tale of two prisoners of Israel’s occupation

Israeli jails have affected countless Palestinian families

When time isn’t on your side, it doesn’t matter who is. Abu Ahmed, a man in his 80s, lies semi-conscious on his bed in Gaza’s Shifa hospital.

His heart and other organs are failing; his chances of getting out of hospital alive are slim. By his side are a few doctors discussing possible ways to get around strict criteria needed to get him transferred out of Gaza or, at least, admit him to intensive care.

This is not typical doctor behaviour, especially when resources are scarce, but they have good reason: The man’s son, who has been in the Israeli prisons for 14 years, is to be released in 29 days. Will time be kind enough to be on his side?

Palestinians marked 17 April as Prisoner’s Day, dedicated to those who are or were imprisoned by the Israeli occupation – the Palestinian prisons ministry says that 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested since 1967, many of whom have been jailed for a significant time.

Keeping track of the exact number of Palestinian prisoners is not a task for the weak. Standing now at around 6,500, the figures are ever changing, and regular night raids and arrests are the norm in Palestine.

On Tuesday the Israeli forces grabbed six Palestinians from their houses in the West Bank. Eight were taken the day before, and 17 the night before that. Who is to know how many will be taken today?

Israeli prisons affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. No political deal has been able to stop Israel’s imprisonment policy, not even Oslo, and so far no swap deal has either.

Palestinian prisoners from modern-day Israel represent an especially tormented sector, and one case illustrates this perfectly.

Lina al-Jarbouni, 39, will this week have spent 14 years in prison. She was accused of assisting the Palestinian resistance during the early days of the Second Intifada, a charge for which the sentence is usually less than three years – she got 17.

The release of all women prisoners was part of the swap deal for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. Lina was prepared for her release when, just before zero hour, her jailers said she was excluded due to her Israeli citizenship.

Other Palestinians with Israeli citizenship were released as part of the deal.

Her Israeli citizenship, the cited reason for her staying in prison, also grants her the right of early release on terms of good behaviour. She has been denied that right.

And like most Palestinian prisoners, she has been subjected to interrogation, abuse and medical negligence. Unlike other prisoners, she cannot complain to the IRC or benefit from the Palestinian prisoner societies.

Lina comes from Arraba, a town in occupied Galilee. Arraba, like Lina, has had its share of torment. The town was under Israeli military rule from its occupation in 1948 to 1966.

In 1976, Arraba participated in the marches of 30 March, now commemorated every year as Land Day, and one of the town’s residents was killed in the clashes that ensued.

In 2000, two youths were killed in the clashes with the Israeli police at the beginning of the Second Intifada.

Neither protest could stop the Israeli land expropriation plan, and the 2000 protests were quelled by the police, successfully pushing forward the Israeli policies of division and isolation.

Lina al-Jabouri has been held in an Israeli prison for 14 years.

Palestinians, however, refuse to yield to these policies. This week, Palestinian activists launched an online campaign in solidarity with Lina.

Thousands of messages were written in Arabic and English on Twitter to introduce Lina’s story, bringing it back from the oblivion inflicted by the struggles of daily life under occupation.

Thousands of Palestinians live in Israeli prisons, forgotten, awaiting their release. The world may regard them as numbers, but they aren’t.

Behind each and every one of them is a story, a family, a dream expecting to be fulfilled and a homeland waiting to be freed.

I don’t know whether time will be on Abu Ahmed’s side, but I know for sure that it will be on Palestine’s. Abu Ahmed’s frail heart may give out before his son is released, but nations never die – they always outlive their occupiers.

This article was first publish on April 23rd on al-Araby al-Jadeed, here

The ghost of Palestine past

With Egypt’s Rafah border crossing almost permanently closed, Erez has become the only portal into Gaza for the few vistors that Israel allows in.

A few days ago I was there, to greet an English doctor who was visiting Gaza.

When entering the Palestinian side, he had to get his papers stamped twice – once by the representatives of the Palestinian Authority, and again by the Gaza police.

But, when I held his passport I noticed something peculiar: the Israelis had pasted a sheet of paper on the passport with the exit stamp.

No recognition

This small piece of paper was a way of denying the Palestinian territory an iota of recognition from Israel.

To them the man was leaving “Israel” and entering a vague entity. They call it the Palestinian “territories”, but if they call it the Palestinian “reservations” then it wouldn’t make much difference.

Every year in May, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba and the creation of the state of Israel. Palestinian leaders indulge in discussions, even spats, on the path they imagine will achieve a Palestinian state.

For 67 years, Palestinian leaders have failed to identify a national agenda, or how their goals could be achieved.

At first, we dreamed of liberating all of Palestine. Then we aimed for a portion of Palestine to establish a state and move to liberate what else of the land remained. Finally, we settled just for the lands occupied from 1967.

It is worth noting that the people never followed their leadership on this downward spiral.

Even after four generations living as refugees, we still long for the day to return to Palestine, no matter where the original towns are now.

Sixty-seven years later, we have arrived at a point where we have the shell of a ghost state, and all the liabilities of a real one.

Ghost state

We now have governments, ministers, a sophisticated security apparatus. We collect taxes and we spend them. We quarrel over power and we fail to share it. But we lack the most essential requirement of a state: sovereignty.

Palestinians seem to have adopted an order of priorities which no successful revolution has followed.

As a result, we have ended up with a lot we fear losing, but with no real gains to show.

The path of armed resistance is refused by some Palestinian leaders due to a fear of what Israeli retaliation might do to “Palestinian institutions”.

Even when popular resistance is praised by the PA, in reality it is discouraged, and sometimes suppressed. The same logic justifies the PA’s past reluctance to join the International Criminal Court.

We now have a power station in Gaza, but we don’t have power. We spend half a billion dollars annually on health referrals from Gaza and the West Bank, but our health services are collapsing.

These are still praised by the old guard as accomplishments extracted from the occupation. But without sovereignty what are these “accomplishments” other than to provide the occupation relief from responsibility.

Palestinians rejoiced when the Palestine Liberation Organisation declared an independent state in 1988 on the lands of 1967. Then six years later at Oslo it conceded to much less than that.

When negotiations proved to be at a dead-end, we pitched for statehood at the UN Sescurity Council and, when that failed, at the UN a year later.

After a series of confused, seemingly desperate moves, a Palestinian state is still illusive.

Even resistance groups such as Hamas have found themselves entangled in this unholy equation.

Hamas won general elections and promised to reform the PA’s faulty body. But it found itself trapped having to provide salaries or work for Palestinians under occupation and resisting the combined Israeli and international extortion to turn their back on armed resistance.

Willingly or not, Hamas appear to have fallen into the same trap.

After 67 years of exile, is all we Palestinians deserve is a ghost state, and more importantly, is it all we could achieve?

It seems that some long, deep, and hard self-criticism is what is really needed.

This article was first published on 18 May, 2015 on al-Araby al-Jadid, here

From Gaza to Yarmouk: This, too, will pass

Gazans protest against clashes in Yarmouk
It is as if we were made to suffer. The Palestinians in Gaza face wars and relentless sieges; those in West Bank are left alone to endure the theft of their land, settler violence and daily raids; Palestinians in today’s Israel live under apartheid policies, accustomed to being a minority in lands which belonged to their ancestors for centuries. Additionally, there are six million refugees, four generations, who live in the diaspora, atoning for a sin they did not commit.

But what pains us the most is that a share of our suffering is inflicted on us by those we call brothers. As we now stand helpless, watching our brothers in Yarmouk refugeee camp in Damascus suffer, there is nothing we can do to help. Nothing that is, except remind them that this, too, will pass.

To our refugee brothers in Yarmouk: You have been living a few kilometers away from your original villages, probably able to see your original homes but never able to reach them. But we

too, are living the same ordeal: 80 percent of Gaza’s population is made of refugees. Like you, we have lived through this for 67 years, believing that one day it will pass.
Like you have now, we have experienced barrel bombs and indiscriminate artillery fire. It is true that they were thrown at us by those who are directly responsible for our plight. But at the hands of your brothers or the hands of your enemies, death tastes the same. Fear not; this, too, will pass.

Our misery might differ in time or scale, but the pain is the same. We hear that you are dying from hunger, with food being held at the camp gates, forbidden from entering by those who claim to be fighting for your cause. We have been through this too. When Israel left us to starve we made underground routes so we could get food, but then our brothers shut down those routes, also in the name of our cause.

We were too hungry to listen to their justifications and probably you are too, but with time we got used to living hungry, and so will you. And if you die from lack of medication, we have been there too. People here are dying as they wait to receive treatment, pleading for a chance to get to hospital. We too have gates, and since the start of this year they have been opened for only five days. But have no worries; this, too, will pass.

And do not care too much if the regime calls you traitors or the Islamic State group (IS) calls you infidels. We have been called the same, and we have been called terrorists, and we have been called ungrateful. But care not for they too will pass – or find other topics to fixate upon.

Niobe, a Greek mythological figure who is a symbol of mourning

When British graffiti artist Banksy arrived in Gaza last month he borrowed the image of the Greek myth of Niobe to illustrate Israel’s cruelty, which he painted on the bent door of a demolished house. The myth claims that Niobe, Queen of Thebes, had 14 children and mocked Leto, who only had two, Apollo and Artemis. Enraged at this provocation, Leto sent his children to kill all of Niobe’s offspring. If Banksy were to visit Yarmouk, which theme will he borrow? I hope he doesn’t paint Cain.

To our refugee brothers in Yarmouk, Israel is responsible for what we have all been through. We lived in dignity in our homes until we were pushed into the diaspora. Even on the darkest days never think otherwise.

When Israel pushed us into the diaspora our brothers received us with open arms. If that warm embrace is gone forever or if this is a temporary setback we do not know, but it matters not as this too will pass. One day we will have our free, sovereign country, and all of this will belong to history books; when that day comes we will tell them with a smile that we forgive them, but what will become of those history books? History does not favour everyone, and even with time its words will not pass.

This article was first publish on April 7th on al-Araby al-Jadeed, here

Myths and realities about Israel’s siege of Gaza

Palestinian youths hold placards during a protest demanding the opening of Gaza’s seaport which is blockaded by Israel, 19 January. One reads: “A sea passage is a humanitarian demand.” (Ashraf Amra / APA images)

For nearly eight long years, Gaza has endured an unprecedented period of strangulation so tight and relentless that the word “siege” is now automatically linked to the enclave in many people’s minds.

Over this period, a number of misconceptions have developed. Here are three of the most common ones I encounter when I talk about conditions in Gaza:

(1) Palestinians in Gaza are in need of basic things including food and blankets

This was certainly true during the 51 days of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer, and its immediate aftermath, but this has not been the situation for most people in Gaza, at least not in the last four years.

As the siege was starting to exact its toll on the population, say early in 2008 until mid-2009, obtaining food for the family was a real, daily agony.

Back then, Israel created revolving crises: for a few days, sometimes weeks, there would be a shortage of wheat, and as media coverage of that crisis soared, Israel would allow wheat in only to stall deliveries of gas or fuel. As a result, at any given time there was at least one key element necessary to make bread missing.

Baby formula was often scarce, and the only types allowed in were the most expensive. It was the same story with everything from medicines to cement, livestock and fertilizer to furniture. At one point nearly all commerce ground to a halt because Israel did not allow coins and smaller domination banknotes into Gaza, where the currency in circulation is the Israeli shekel.

People still recount the days when they used cooking oil instead of gasoline in their cars, even for government vehicles and ambulances.

Mothers had to struggle with the two types of diapers Israel allowed in: one of very poor quality and the other too expensive.

Meanwhile a factory that produced diapers in Gaza shut down because Israel would not allow in raw materials (see the Goldstone report on the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, page 199). Hundreds of businesses producing goods locally shut down.

In 2007, as it was preparing to impose the siege, Israel’s ministry of defense calculated that Gaza needed a minumum of 106 truckloads of humanitarian supplies, mostly food, per day.

This was part of a deliberate policy to reduce the standard of living in Gaza as collective punishment and pressure after Hamas was elected in 2006 and then assumed complete control of the interior of the territory in 2007.

From July 2007 to July 2010, the number of truckloads actually entering Gaza was consistently just two-thirds of the 106 minimum, according to the Israeli group Gisha, which monitors the siege of Gaza.

At this stage, the siege was comprehensive and brutal, but it was also stupid: it attracted too much unwanted international coverage.

Counting calories

It was only in 2012, after a long court battle to obtain government documents, that Gisha revealed the cruel mathematical formulas Israel used to calculate the calories that each Palestinian in Gaza would be allowed to receive on average each day – just enough to put the population “on a diet” but not to cause famine. Despite this, there was chronic malnutrition among some of the most vulnerable populations.

In 2010, two events changed the course of the siege: the May 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the expansion of the tunnel network in Rafah on the Egyptian border.

Israel’s brutal assault on the flotilla and its killing of nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara proved to be a turning point, sparking unprecedented protests, both politically and in streets around the world.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian tunnel diggers had improved, both in expertise and scope, and lots of items which were effectively banned by Israel resurfaced in Gazan shops. For the first time in over a year and a half, wheat, milk, chocolate and soda were not so hard to obtain.

(2) Palestinians in Gaza would be much better off investing in infrastructure rather than resistance

Following these two developments, the Israeli siege took a smarter form. Israel eased restrictions on trivial items – soda and snack foods – but the strangulation on the economy and the public only tightened, making any real development impossible.

If people were going to get food through the tunnels anyway, why should Israel miss out on the profits of selling to them directly? After all, the vast majority of consumer goods coming into Gaza were made by Israeli firms.

However, any materials which could revive the local economy were still tightly controlled or banned, especially construction and raw materials. And Israel all but banned exports from Gaza.

This was followed by successive Israeli military assaults, in November 2012 and then again last summer.

The deficit of 75,000 housing units that already existed more than doubled as a result of the new destruction.

Israel back in total control

To complicate matters, Egypt destroyed the tunnel network following the military overthrow of elected president Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, putting Israel once more in exclusive control of what people in Gaza could have.

As a result, a major sector of the community sees food which it cannot buy, while a minority has money which it cannot use.

Now, some six months after the summer assault, less than two percent of the materials Gaza needs for reconstruction have been allowed in.

Meanwhile, Gaza suffers unprecedented unemployment, its people receive no more than six hours of electricty each day, tens of thousands go without salaries and the infrastructure is already collapsing.

It should be noted that throughout these six months, Palestinian armed factions have meticulously observed the ceasefire agreed with Israel last 26 August, while Israel violates it almost every day.

And now, the ultimate smart siege is the UN-backed “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism,” which many in Gaza see as giving international legitimacy to Israel’s blockade.

(3) Before the siege started in 2007 things were just fine

Gaza was a prison long before Palestinians began improvising rockets in the early 2000s. Israel started fencing Gaza in 1994 shortly after the Oslo accords and gradually restricting its population, who depended on jobs in Israel, from traveling there.

The 50-kilometer fence runs along the entire land boundary between the Gaza Strip and present-day Israel and is made up of wire fencing, sensors and buffer zones. The barrier was extended in 2005, the year Israel withdraw its settlers from the interior of Gaza, to cover the border between Gaza and Egypt.

At the beginning, there were eight gates and crossings established to control movement through this barrier. Now there are only three, one crossing for people each between Gaza and Egypt and Gaza and Israel, and one for goods. All face frequent closures or tight restrictions.

It is no wonder that unemployment in Gaza was already over thirty percent in 2005-2006, before the siege.

A 2006 report by Anne Barnard, then of The Boston Globe, one year after the Israeli withdrawal, describes the situation thus:

Instead of new prosperity from burgeoning trade with Israel and the world, Gazans face a tighter Israeli security cordon that has sharply restricted exports. Tons of fruit and vegetables have rotted before reaching markets, small factories have ground to a halt, and in recent months, Israel has barred Gazans from fishing off their coast or entering Israel to work.”

The same quote could rightly be used today, and it would be just as true, though the situation is now even more catastrophic.

What Gaza really needs

What Gaza really needs is to be welcomed back into the world. It needs not to be seen anymore through Israeli eyes as a security threat. It needs to be seen for the endless possibilities of human innovation locked inside.

It needs to be able to connect with the West Bank, with Jerusalem. It needs freedom of travel. Its 1.8 million residents need not to be required to have special permits to enter many countries merely because of their residency in Gaza.

It needs accountability and it needs justice, for without justice peace is only a mirage.

Gaza needs to be left to live and prosper.