• A Visit to the Gaza Strip

  • Λουίζα Μοργκαντίνι | 20 May 09
  • “The people of Gaza have been restricted to survival rations for over 20 months now. Restrictions on food types, clothing and school books are keeping innocent children underfed, cold and uneducated. Hospitals, schools and thousands of homes need to be rebuilt. We cannot talk seriously about rebuilding Gaza without the opening of all crossings.” (Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director of Oxfam International) 

    I visited Gaza Strip recently, during and after the Israeli aggression, with two delegations of the European Parliament. Each time, I and the other MEP (Member of European Parliament) participants in the fact finding mission  were terribly shocked and dismayed by the unbelievable destruction we witnessed in the Strip, and we then delivered reports to the EP. This destruction has been too often denounced not only by International, Israeli and Palestinian NGOs – Amnesty International, Human Right Watch, Oxfam and many others – and by prominent Israeli journalists and peace activists, but also by the UN Human Rights Committee that is now investigating the crimes committed in the war in Gaza, in which more than 1,400 people have been killed, many of them children, innocent civilians targeted from the air, on land, from ships, with no chance of escaping since all border crossings were closed. 

    Now it is really time for Israel to be judged and held accountable for its human rights violations: that is also the position of  the Russell Tribunal, which in its tradition of inquiry on War Crimes in Vietnam, launched its new activity on Palestine on March 4, 2009 in Brussels: a citizens’ initiative aimed at the reaffirmation of  international law as the basis for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and at raising consciousness of the international community’s responsibility in the continuing denial of the rights of the Palestinian people. 

    However, even now, after the donor conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt raised a total of more than $5 billion to assist the Palestinian economy and rebuild the Gaza Strip, the raids carried out by the Israeli air forces continue to target the Strip and cause fatalities, while border crossings remain closed or are opened by the Israeli Authorities for a few hours a day and not to all goods or people: pasta for example was not allowed in the Strip – since it was considered a luxury good and not humanitarian aid, as for example rice is – and toys for children from UNICEF were denied entry because they were not “a humanitarian priority”. 

    We have to find a way to oblige Israel unconditionally to open all the crossings for people and goods.

    While the bombs were still falling on the Strip, our delegation of MEPs visiting Gaza really saw the hell that ensued: we saw people stunned by terror, exhausted from insomnia due to severe bombardment, desperate people searching for corpses in the rubble and suffering from the blockade that had already been imposed on the civil population of the Gaza Strip as a form of collective punishment. Hundreds of Palestinian patients have died since June 2007, unable to leave the Strip due to the closure imposed by Israel. Among these deaths, 35% were children.

    Our delegation of MEPs witnessed a clear intention to destroy in Gaza. The Israeli forces did not miss their targets and thus destroyed most of the infrastructure often built with European aid: it was a precisely calculated targeting by the Israeli Authorities, not only using the air force but also with tanks, bulldozers and dynamite, in order to make a desert, a scorched earth, of Gaza’s borders with Israel, to create a dead zone instead of the industrial area that had been there, because of the proximity of the borders and to facilitate commerce and the transport of goods. 

    There were no militants launching rockets in the American School that we have seen completely destroyed: it was an avant-garde school attended by sons and daughters of businessmen and intellectuals, the same school that Hamas tried many times to close, and now it is the Israeli bombs that have succeeded in doing so, burning all archives, documents and classrooms. I talked with the director, an extraordinary person, who, indignant and enraged, is still expressing the wish to live in peace. He is looking for another location for his students. 

    In addition to these serious attacks on any perspective of future economic growth, the Israeli aggression succeeded also in terrifying the civil population, denying them any possibility of improving their situation on the ground. They did so by means of white phosphorus arms, weapons that cause very painful and often lethal chemical burns, or with shells exploding in the air and scattering flechettes in heavily populated areas, which describes the entire Gaza Strip, with its 1,500,000 inhabitants. Even UN schools and hospitals have been struck: no human-rights consideration was able to restrain Israel from ruthlessly demonstrating its muscle.

    We saw the devastated Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza, run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society, that was hit by explosions causing a fire that put the patients’ lives at risk. It was painful to see the whole division used for psychotherapy and recreational activities, where painters, artists as well as a theatre company used to work, completely destroyed, with an entire painting exhibition shattered and pictures burnt.

    Our MEP delegation also met the survivors of the Samuni family, an important family of farmers and chicken raisers in Gaza: after having destroyed all their properties, the Israeli soldiers forced all of them to enter the same house that they bombed, killing 29 members of the family. We experienced the dignity and the humility of the father and were astonished at the lucidity and strength of his 13-year old daughter who had lost her mother and her four sisters in the bombings – a lucidity that the international community and the European Union were never able to show: we have only been able to stammer a few ineffective words in the face of the Israeli crimes committed in Gaza and the occupied West Bank; we have been unable to stop the massacre, unable to make Israel respect international law, unable to prevent human grief – unable to do anything.

    Of course Hamas also must assume its responsibilities: launching rockets, generating fear and threatening the Israeli civilian population represent unlawful and criminal acts that have to be condemned and stopped. But the asymmetry is undeniable, even if one death is enough to condemn all violence: since 2002, 20 people have been killed in rocket attacks by Palestinian extremists – which is unacceptable – but at the same time more than 4,000 Palestinians died both in Gaza and the West Bank, including hundreds of children. 

    As the European Union, we did a lot to support the Palestinians economically; however, they need freedom and independence. Since 1967, Israel has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories – a brutal colonial occupation – characterised by land theft, house demolitions, checkpoints where Palestinians receive humiliating treatment and are beaten, the alarming spread of colonies, the take over of land and water resources and the destruction of crops. Thousands of political prisoners are even denied visits by family members. 

    Instead of an assistance policy we must work for a political solution. Palestinians need not just aid but above all justice.

    That is why the EU must do everything possible using all means, changing its double-standard policy, starting with the suspension of the Association agreement and a halt to the upgrading of relations with Israel, since it does not observe human rights and international law. The European Parliament has up to now refused to vote for upgrading the relationship, and many resolutions have called for the end of the siege in Gaza and the need to work for the unity of the Palestinian leadership and territories. 

    Moreover, we still have not facilitated the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas. It was a big mistake not to recognise the government democratically elected by the Palestinian people, and even more not to recognise the unity government which came out of the effort of the Palestinian prisoners belonging to all factions, in the first place by Marwan Barghouti. We should now help Hamas to work on a democratic system and to fight the occupation with non-violent resistance; we have to work for a Palestinian Government of Unity, indispensable now more than ever. 

    In this, we urge the US immediately to change its policy; otherwise the hope arising for Obama’s new gestures will start to flounder. During her last visit to the West Bank, the new US Secretary General Hillary Clinton defined the two-state solution as “ineluctable”, but she did not take a firm stand against the human-rights violations committed by Israel, and she did not utter a single concrete word of condemnation vis-à-vis the settlements issue. 

    I strongly believe that the international community must give the most serious consideration to the changes in Israeli society resulting from the elections and in particular regarding the new Israeli political representatives, such as the extremist and racist Lieberman who called for forced displacement of Arabs “somewhere else“, but also Netanyahu, who never accepted the two-state solution and clearly supports the settlements policy in the West Bank. 

    Today, settlements still represent the major impediment to all peace negotiations, since their expansion corresponds  to a further, constant, daily and persistent aggression toward the Palestinian people and territory.

    While the Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip was escalating, the erection of new settlements was accelerating: according to a recent report by the Israeli organisation Peace Now, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank increased by 69% in 2008 compared to 2007, and the number of settlers rose from 270,000, at the end of 2007, to 285,000 at the end of 2008. Recent reports (Peace Now) affirmed that at least 73,300 Israeli housing units are slated to be constructed in all of the West Bank, doubling the existing number.

    In addition to all this, the Jerusalem Municipality is now planning to demolish 88 residential units, including 114 houses inhabited by 1,500 Palestinian residents of al-Bustan Quarter in Silwan, East Jerusalem, in order to replace them with an archaeological park. Moreover, 36 more Palestinian families, about 230 people, received new demolition orders for their homes in Abbasieh Quarter, still in Silwan, and another 55 families in Shu’fat Camp have to evacuate their dwellings, bringing to 179 the total number of Palestinian homes slated to be demolished. If these demolitions in Silwan, where groups of settlers are already established, are implemented it would be the biggest demolition plan since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, in an historic and symbolic area of East Jerusalem less than 400 meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall. Even a group of twenty Israeli writers and researchers -including Amos Oz and David Grossman- wrote a letter to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat urging the government to rescind orders to evict people from their homes, as such policies, they said, violate “elementary human rights”. 

    With such plans and deeds, how can we believe that Israel really wants peace and security?

    Israeli policies have never really tried to impede the radicalisation of the conflict by giving concrete signals or showing a commitment to achieve a just and shared agreement that would be sustainable and lasting in all the region, and not doing so is also a risk for the state of Israel. 

    We have already seen pogroms perpetrated by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in Hebron, a ghost town where 120,000 Palestinians live as hostages of 500 or 600 Israeli settlers protected by thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces, where more than 800 Palestinian shops were forced to close because of various aggressions and where, after years of complicity, backing and connivance by the different governments carrying on a colonial policy, the Israeli settlers’ violence exploded into attacks on Palestinians, with the uprooting of trees and the burning of homes and of mosques.

    If the international community is unable to pressure the new Israeli government into endorsing the two-state solution, the freezing of all settlement expansion in the West Bank and the respect of all agreements and international obligations already signed, nothing will ever change in the area. In Gaza, even hope itself is in danger of being definitively destroyed. In order to restore it, the international community must be able to demand of Israel the implementation of international law. Up to now, requests have been addressed only to the Palestinians. It is time to ask to the Israeli Authorities to implement the agreements and international law. This is a crucial moment; in Cairo Palestinians are trying again to form a unified government. The international community should support these efforts and not try to impose conditions on them. 

    But we have to convince Israel that it cannot continue violating international law and that it must start to listen to all those voices calling for peace, rights and dignity for the Palestinian people, as the only way to achieve security; it must listen to the many extraordinary Israelis and Palestinians struggling together in a non-violent way against the occupation, representing a culture able to deconstruct the figure of the enemy and the notion of revenge, by which everybody loose. They are a living miracle  in this context of humiliation and reiterated human-rights abuses; they refuse to be enemies and demand a stop to the occupation; they legitimately believe that we cannot build security on the basis of death and the humiliation of all Gazans and Palestinians, but only on justice and an end to the occupation.