January 07, 2011 Breaking the siege of Gaza with SKYPE

A torrential rain sweeps through Nablus, the city of hills, and the street is briefly turned into a rushing river as we come to meet Dr. Allam Jarrar, our friend and partner at Palestinian Medical Relief Society. He looks fit and cheerful, but I notice rivulets of sweat beading on his face as he discusses “the situation” which has grown increasingly difficult, especially over the last 6 months with the failure of the Obama “peace process” and the explosion in settlement growth.

Allam reviews the usual disasters:

1 ½ million people in Gaza are completely cut off from the world with the Rafa checkpoint in the south controlled by Egypt (with Israeli blessings) and the Erez checkpoint in the north controlled by Israel; maybe 12 Gazans are allowed to enter daily into Israel, mostly for extreme medical needs and sometimes forced to become collaborators in exchange for the permit. (This is well documented by multiple sources.)

There are now 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and ever expanding Jerusalem, and over 200 settlements, with Israeli control of 60% of the area. The Palestinian Authority “controls/administers” the remaining areas A and B, but in actuality everything is under Israeli control. Twelve Israeli governmental Ministers currently reside in settlements and the Israeli government is increasingly right wing.

Some 600 checkpoints (according to the UN OCHA) damage the geographic and social integrity of the West Bank.

Palestinians have been divided into three political, social, and economic entities:

1.East Jerusalem with 220,000 “residents” who carry an East Jerusalem ID,

2.West Bank where Allam describes a pass system reminiscent of South Africa. This does not include the areas around the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley as those areas are a closed military zone (where a Palestinian was recently killed at a checkpoint )and includes 2 million people

3.Gaza with 1 ½ million people

He explores the various social movements around the separation wall, settlements and in East Jerusalem and the growing nonviolent resistance that is becoming a major feature of the Palestinian struggle. There was even a recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about reviving the pacifist movement based on ethical values within Israel to join Palestinians. Allam is also encouraged by the BDS movement which is now supported by Palestinian NGOs as a strategy that will make the Israeli policies more visible. “Israel can’t hide; there is a price for its behavior.” He worries about the talk of Israel launching attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Iran.

Allam explains that Palestinian Medical Relief Society was established in 1979 by volunteers to address the needs of marginalized communities and to build an infrastructure of resistance and steadfastness against the occupation. It is now the biggest health related NGO with 25 health centers and focuses on direct care, women’s empowerment, disability, health education, youth development, school health programs, training first aid workers, emergency interventions, support during curfews, and more. I notice in the office a woman receptionist with severe scoliosis and another working in a wheelchair. They practice what they preach. Funding comes from European and US NGOs. Allam notes that Palestinians have the worst record for international dependency, approximately $800 per capita of foreign aid. This is the end result of the occupation and the repeated destruction of the infrastructure of the society and economy. A painful example is the destruction of the Gazan fishing industry by the Israeli’s repeatedly shrinking the miles that fishing boats are allowed to go out to sea. These families then become dependent on international aid.

And then we begin our meeting with colleagues in Gaza. SKYPE is set up and the images are projected on the wall, faces flickering, sometimes fragmented Picasso –like, but definitely present and in conversation with us in Nablus. Amjad from the International Seige of Gaza and PENGO (a Palestinian civil society organization) outlines the horrific consequences of Cast Lead and the siege of Gaza. Thousands of houses cannot be rebuilt due to lack of materials, the recent opening to construction materials is for UNRWA construction only. 20,000 people remain homeless and 100,000 housing units are needed. 80% of the population depends on international agencies for basic needs, 40% of the population lives in severe poverty. UNRWA schools run 3 sessions per day and sometimes use containers for classrooms. 3,800 factories are not functional and there are no exports, 35% of agricultural land has been confiscated by the IDF often for “buffer zones,” the once vigorous flower and strawberry industries are decimated. 90% of the water is undrinkable. He notes that there are still daily incursions, 140 people have been injured in the past few months with several deaths, and the IDF arrested 3 fishermen today for fishing 3 miles from shore, well within the latest limits and well beyond years of previous regulations. He adds that Israel is trying to demonize Gaza and make them totally dependent. Tens of thousands of university students are now graduating with no possibilities for work, so there is also a brain drain along with no hope and no unity. His first priority is ending the siege and he strongly supports the BDS movement.

Aed Yaghi, an administrator for PMRS, then discusses the failing health sector. There are currently 180 essential medications unavailable, equipment cannot be maintained due to lack of parts, there are frequent losses of electricity, patients are unable to leave for advanced medical therapy and hundreds have died due to lack of referrals. PMRS is trying to cover the needs of patients with chronic illness. Since June 2010, some patients are able to leave via the Raffa crossing in Egypt (250-300 people per day) which is open five days per week, 8 hours per day, for the eight hour trip to an Egyptian hospital. (Imagine being critically ill, having to jump through hoops to obtain a permit to leave Gaza, getting to and waiting at the Raffa Crossing and THEN, making an eight hour trip to reach a hospital. This almost sounds like a death sentence to me.) The rare patients that get permits to leave through the Erez checkpoint are interrogated, may be forced to become collaborators in exchange for passage, can still be denied access and if traveling by ambulance, there are 400 meters between the Palestinian and Israeli ambulances. (Can you imagine when you are in pain, have cancer or severe heart disease, or you are a child whose mother could not get a permit and you are traveling alone? And let’s say you are receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments in Israel, you have to do this each time and if you are delayed and miss your appointment there is no recourse.) What ever happened to the universal right to health or the Geneva Conventions regarding health care personnel and access?

600 NGOs were destroyed or damaged during Cast Lead, including the Gaza Community Mental Health Center. Food enters from Israel day by day, there are bread shortages and malnutrition and only Israeli agricultural products are permitted. The tunnel system between Raffa and Egypt was built out of sheer desperation and provides basic food, cooking gas, medications, sheep, cows, etc. Even the fish is now imported from Egypt through the tunnels. 150 people have been killed from tunnel collapse. Aed claims that the Israeli government uses the tunnels and the products that then end up on the shelves of local markets as proof there is no problem. But there is a corruptive black market, high priced, often low quality, that only contributes to a small number of Gazans enriching themselves and the lack of a viable economy. He reminds us that a humanitarian crisis needs a political solution and this particularly applies to Gaza.

While this information is readily available on a variety of websites, there was something so powerful for me that we were actually talking with colleagues in Gaza despite the intense siege, listening to their concerns, asking questions, bearing witness, promising to bring their voices to our communities, verbally and visually breaking the blockade . Who ever thought SKYPE could be such a powerful political tool?

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