This is the second part of my account of my trip to Egypt and Gaza from 23-27 July which was organized by the Council for European Palestinian Relations. The trip’s purpose was to promote understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict in general, and the situation in the Gaza Strip in particular. Thirteen parliamentarians representing the Commons, Lords and the Scottish and European Parliaments attended.
Monday 25 July 2011 – Gaza
The first meeting was with representatives of women’s groups. Highly articulate and determined, the women explained that with such a large number of brothers, fathers and husbands dead or imprisoned Gazan women are taking up the mantle of running families.
They told us they needed to be treated as equals in society, with the rights of full participation in voting or standing as candidates. They said they wanted to remain in Gaza in peace, after resolving differences with Israel. They said the biggest single thing to improve life in Gaza was to lift the blockade. The conflict has hardened the resolve of women, and it seemed to me, even in this strongly paternalist society, they have an essential part to play in reconstructing Palestine.
Through bombed-out buildings and dusty rubbish-strewn streets we made out way to OCHA, the UN agency for the coordination of Human Affairs. They gave us background information on Gaza and the West Bank: 1.5m people live there – 70% of whom are refugees, 54% are under 18.
Israel has surrounded the territories with barriers and exclusion zones. They have also imposed a territorial water limit of only 3 nautical miles. Thanks to the blockade, there are no exports, and imports are only 40% of their 2007 values. The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy and represents a collective and deliberate punishment waged on a defenceless society.
At our next meeting with the Palestinian Legislative Council we learnt that three Palestinian MPs are still imprisoned by Israel. The PLC called for Israel to conform to international law and release them.
At a specially arranged forum with assorted NGOs we heard the often repeated calls for an end of the siege, occupation and suppression. The NGOs also expressed surprise and dismay that, despite breaking international laws on so many levels, Israel was not being challenged by Europe and the US.
The final meeting of the day was with Fatah where the newly found determination to work in a new Unity government alongside previous enemies Hamas was the lead topic of conversation. They were hopeful of democratic elections in June 2012, but were not willing to support the candidacy of Salam Fayadd as prime minister. My view is that the Unity arrangements need to fully accommodate the possible voting results.
Tuesday 26th July 2011 – Gaza
Tuesday started with a meeting with small and medium sized businesses, and trade unions. Operation Cast Lead destroyed half of the factories across all sectors. Prior to 2005 there were 135,000 jobs in manufacturing. Today there are roughly 15,000.
With exports banned and imports strictly limited, the economy is in a stranglehold. With all kinds of goods in critical demand, the number of tunnels into Gaza is between 300 and 1,000. Of course, these imports are illegal and the opportunities to profit from them are fully exploited. The effect of the tunnels is to distort the economy, but I can understand why people use the goods that are smuggled through them.
From the business people we travelled to Al-Shifa Hospital to meet the Minister of Health, Bassem Naem. This is Gaza City’s main hospital and I spoke with doctors who told me that during the conflict up to 250 badly injured civilians were arriving every day.
The blockade has halted building works for several years now, and is is not permitted for life-saving drugs and medical disposables (like gloves) to enter Gaza. 500 patients have died over the last five years for want of medication. Children and cancer patients are most at risk.
From the state of the art radiotherapy equipment donated by the EU that has never been used because the trainer was not allowed into Gaza to the lack of life saving drugs, this denial of access is criminal and inhumane.
Our next visit was to the refugee camp at Al Nusairat, and perhaps for me illustrated most harshly how ordinary people are oppressed by politics over which they have no control. The camp was established in 1948, has 64,000+ residents and is one of three such camps clustered together. Services are very sporadic amongst the dense, narrow walkways. We visited the burnt-out house of an old woman, who was still living there, having nowhere else to go, and no family to support her. For someone to be living there was beyond belief, the only room with a roof was her kitchen, stuffed full of rubbish and debris.
I am not and never have been anti Israel; the holocaust remains a terrible warning of what can happen when States wield absolute power.
I have seen the awful privations of the state of Palestine. The tragedy is that the Palestinians who are suffering aren’t able to address the causes behind them.
The Palestinians I have met have impressed my by their determination to rebuild Gaza, to live their lives in harmony with their neighbours. I raised my belief that the continuing rocket attacks on Israel should end, that they represent a reinforcement to the Israelis for continuing the blockade. As such I think the rocket attacks do not serve any strategic purpose.
I have heard time and time again pleas that the blockade should end and that the EU and US should lobby strongly for this to happen. Of all the ways forward for Gaza the obstacles that prevent progress could be removed by Israel, and that has to be a target for all of us to aim for.