August 14, 2009
On our last morning in Gaza we visited the tunnels in Rafeh, a 100 meters or so from the border. Driving along a dirt road there are mounds of earth on each side and makeshift tents, each with a small group of men.
We stop and get out to look. A F16 drones above. The tunnel hole is maybe 1.2 square meters wide, reinforced with wood and drops vertically maybe 20 feet. You can barely see the man standing at the bottom in the dark. A metal hoist sits in the middle.
There were a 1000 tunnels, but bombings have reduced that number to approximately 700, we are told. The recent bombing of an adjacent tunnel has left a small crater, as evidence. We are told the tunnel sizes vary, from crawling, to crouching to walking. Some are long and take 40 plus minutes and some are short and take much less time to get through. Payment is anywhere from $500.00 to $2000 per one way trip. Not cheap but desperate times cost. Almost anything goes thru the tunnels; washing machines, cows, machinery, car parts, wedding dresses, and of course, people. There is even an oil pipeline. The Israeli’s allowed some gas to come in about a week ago, but there hasn’t been much pick up, as the tunnel price is a better deal. Even hair conditioner (one of the items banned for import into Gaza) makes it through. Local folks cannot understand why hair conditioner and Pampers aren’t allowed in "above ground".
The tunnels are dangerous; they can cave in, and of course face bombing. The sound of an F16 passing high above, a clear reminder of the dangers of this business.
Other members of our group are very interested in the tunnels themselves, but I am interested in who controls them. This is hard to find out, and info is very vague. Various individuals "own" them, and I wish I could find out more, but there is not enough time, as we ourselves, have to get back quickly to the "other" crossing and navigate the anticipated delays there. I remember one of the Palestinian business men warning – "when you come back, I may not be here. It will be the Mafioso sitting here, not me". He desperately wanted the tunnels gone and regular trade mechanisms set up.
So – we leave – a short but highly informative visit to Gaza and I feel that we have done what we set out to do……see the disaster first hand and help advocate for change.
Back at Rafeh we pass through the Gaza side quickly. But the Egypt side takes forever, again. It is airless, hot and dirty in the arrival hall and we wait and wait, as others do, (not because its busy, but because there are so many layers of clearance to go through), until finally our passports are stamped. Such limited access for people, into Gaza, mostly denied, is a huge issue and I’m glad we went through Rafeh to see it firsthand.
Now we begin the long drive back across the Sinai Peninsula and over the Suez Canal, back into Cairo, back to Amman, back to London, and finally to Halifax, where the NDP Convention is already underway. My brain is working hard to switch gears. Were times different, our alternative route could have been a drive of an hour or so to Tel Aviv, and a direct flight to Canada.
I would like to thank the good folks in the Canadian Mission Office in Ramallah, who provided our delegation with excellent support, information and assistance to our mission in the West Bank. They are great people! This past Canada Day, in lieu of their stat holiday, the staff in the office in Ramallah organized and worked on a big clean up and fix up of a local children’s park in Ramallah. Now that is a fine example of true Canadian friendship and support.
I must also thank CODE PINK for their wonderful help in organizing this mission. Kim, Ehab, Jase, and Sara, are terrific travel companions. This was their second, and for some, 3rd time to Gaza. They did what DFAIT wouldn’t do in Gaza, they supported our mission, made it work, got us in and out safely, and paid their own way and expected no thanks, other than a hope that this mission will draw attention and that we’ll keep the pressure up. We will.
August 14, 2009
Our mission to Gaza was at the invitation of UNWRA, the United Nations Works and Relief agency in Palestine. They were wonderful hosts and life for Gazans would be worse if they were not there to help. They employ 10,000 people in Gaza, (mostly teachers) and the UN schools (221 in total) are critically important to child development and education.
We had the good fortune to be in Gaza when the "Summer Games" were on. The IOC might learn a thing or two from UNRWA, and their excellent organization. 225,000 children (aged 7-15) attend the summer games each year in 22+ camps, mostly on the beach. The whole idea is to have fun. Many of these kids are traumatized and don’t get to experience a normal life. So for the 3rd year UNWRA has organized the games, and kids attend a two-week session. They paint (an important emotional therapy), they learn games, and swim, and do small lessons. The kids we saw were having an awesome time and it was good to hear laughter louder than the waves. Some of the kids had not been to the beach before, even though it is so close. Fifty percent of the population in Gaza is 15 years and under and so the needs of children and youth are paramount.
Earlier in the morning we had visited one of the few remaining tent camps where families are still living after their homes were destroyed. A family invited us into their tent and it was blistering hot, but "home" to 8 people. I exchanged a few words with the father and he said so many people tell us it will change, but it doesn’t. There was no anger in his voice – just an expression of an inescapable (and inexplicable) fact. The ban on construction materials means that new homes, clinics, and schools cannot be built, even though UNWRA has budgets for them. $93 Million worth of construction by UNWRA has been suspended because of the blockade. The Deputy Director says the highest priority is to lift the blockade and open the borders. Everywhere we go people use the "normal" to describe what they want. I realize it’s a word we don’t use a lot in North America, as we worry about defining normal, and excluding differences. But normal to these Gazans means, basic necessities and feeling "normal", like your life counts.
Even though my head is pounding with facts and realities, it is the words of Dr. Sarraj, a renowned Palestinian Psychiatrist who quietly presses the key point: the occupation of 60 years, and the successive generational impact on both Palestinian and Israeli society. He talks about guilt, unresolved trauma, the violence of war on children, and the loss of their fathers as providers and protectors. He is a wise man and you feel the weight of his analysis in your heart not your head. He is a passionate defender of Palestinians and their struggle for justice and it is remarkable he has not left, but continues to use his professional skills to help people. We sat in his garden and it was an oasis in the midst of chaos. When we heard gunfire he chuckled and said it was warning shots at sea.
White Phosphorous. The doctors at the hospital didn’t know at first why the burns they saw were different during the bombing last December/January. It is an illegal chemical weapon and it was used by Israel on civilians. Dr. Moussa has photos from his hospital and they are not pleasant to look at. But seeing is knowing, and knowing, means taking action to ensure there are investigations that bring to account, breaches of international law.
The workers at UNWRA are really dedicated, hard working people and one of the things we must do as Canadians, is ensure that our own government supports their work, and provides an adequate budgetary commitment for UNWRA’s ongoing work. This too we will follow up.
Next: the "underground" border crossingsAugust 13, 2009
It has been an intense 24 hours in Gaza – so intense and busy that I didn’t have time to write there. But a 24 hours that has been worth every minute. The ridiculous and lengthy wait at the Rafeh border on the Egyptian side (both coming and going) has faded from my mind, but I will make a quick observation ….border crossings can be horrific for people and the less status/money you have the more you are the mercy of systems and petty bureaucrats who love the power they wield. And in case we think Canada is superior in this regard, let’s not forget about Mr. Robert Dziekański.
The first person we meet at the Rafeh crossing trying to get into Gaza was a Canadian Palestinian from Edmonton trying to see his sick father. He was quite surprised to see two Canadian MPs next to him. I am pretty sure he did not make it thru, having come that long way. He may have ended up going in via tunnels (more on that later).
Once inside (and "inside" is a more apt description than you’d think, as in a jail like setting), you are struck by the beauty of the Gaza strip nestled beside the Mediterranean Sea. In past years, it was a popular holiday destination for people in the region and there are echoes of grand houses and villas overlooking the sea. But now, a million litres of sewage spills out into the sea, 80% of the roads are badly in need of repair, and the cosmopolitan air of Gaza city is reduced to a crumbling infrastructure. Further north, whole neighbourhoods are flattened and shelled.
Gaza once had a vibrant agriculture industry and the remains of rows and rows of greenhouses are evident. We hear that the strawberries were delicious and always awaited in Europe in December (like Canadians await the treat of mandarin oranges). But the blockade means no replacement for the canvass covers that rip in the wind, no glass, no seeds, no supplies, no tools, and no building supplies; useless.
Well at least there’s the sea – abundant. But that too is "contained". When we meet with the fishers at 5:30am, the sun rising atop the minarets in the east, and the graceful wooden fish boats coming in from the nights catch, there isn’t much to unload. Sardines – and small they tell us. Israel restricts the fishing limit to less than 3 miles (much less than outlined in the Oslo agreement) and so the once robust fishing industry that used to export to Israel is gone. The fishers scrape out a living and load the containers of sardines onto flat-bed carts driven by horse or mule. Only 20% or the boats are used now. And once out to sea they keep a wary eye open for IDF gunboats that fire warning shots.
The more you ask, the more you don’t want to hear, but must hear, to register the impact of the more than 2 year siege of Gaza and the 22 day war.
You never know in advance what it is that will get to you, so I am surprised that for me, it’s the Karni industrial area. It’s not the parliament building, a cascading wreck of concrete, nor the shelled and bombed houses, nor the horrendous refugee camps (800,000 of Gaza’s 1.5 million population are refugees) that have existed for ever. Nor is it the garbage, dead animals here and there, and the vacant empty buildings with broken windows and doors hanging off. It’s this industrial area in the north-east part of the city – flattened and obliterated by exiting forces of the IDF. In the last 48 hours of the war they left via this area and destroyed it on their way out. There were 4000 factories and industries. Now there are 250. Gaza was famous for its furniture making. There were biscuit factories, ice cream factories, and machine and industrial enterprises, to name a few. Almost all gone, almost as a parting shot on their way out. It’s only then that I begin to get it – we are so used to the messages that the war was about destroying terrorists. But this was about destroying the economy and livelihood of the whole of Gaza society.
We met a number of local business people. They patiently explain what they are facing. You can tell they have explained it many times, but will continue until they are heard.
"We are not all Hamas or Fatah, or anything, but just people who want to live".
"We are human beings looking for a good future"
"We did business with Israelis, we had imports, exports, and good workers".
"But we have nothing called the economy now".
These are some of the things the business people say as they describe the devastation of their economy and society. But the one that sticks in my mind is one the man who says, "The last neighbour you want is someone with nothing to lose".
It is chilling and real in many ways. And maybe that feeds into the stereotype of the terrorist threat. But it is also thoughtful and full of concern about what has happened and could still happen.
Every single person we meet, NGOs, doctors, aid workers, fishers, young women, and families, say there must be peace and a Palestinian state. Every single person we meet wants a normal life and an end to physiological, physical and political warfare. And they have hope for this. Every single person wants to come and go, just like other people, and not be subject to forced containment. If you’re in you can’t get out(with a few exceptions) and if you’re out you can’t get in.
And on it goes, only getting worse.
More later on our visit with UNWRA and the significant work they are doing and the tunnels, which we visited.
August 11, 2009
This is the seaside town in Egypt close to the Rafeh crossing into Gaza. A long 6 plus hour drive from Cairo. Many check stops along the way and some difficulties getting through – but we did it. Flat long road, and crossing the Mubarak Peace Bridge over the Suez Canal is impressive. Every time you stop and open the van door you get a blast of thick hot air; it sort of thuds in your face. Even though it’s late – now after 10:00 pm – we hope to meet Red Crescent reps to talk about the warehouse situation where goods ready to go into Gaza can’t make it in because Israel controls what goes in and how much.
The irony of today is, we got up 5:30am – left Jerusalem by 7am – got thru the Allenby crossing back into Jordon from the West Bank, drove to Amman airport, flew to Cairo, and then drove to Al Arish – so about 15+ hours. By contrast the direct drive to Gaza from Jerusalem is about 2hrs, had we been able to go from that route. It gives you an idea of what locals in the West Bank go thru to go from A to B, via, X Y Z.
A further irony – the new tunnel roads and sunken roads, being built in the West Bank, that are only open at certain times for Palestinians to use (a so called "improvement") to by-pass the Israeli only by-pass roads, are called the "the fabric of life" roads.
Wow – Al Arish is a pretty lively place – all the shops are open. It’s like rush hour, Kim says. I’m wide awake now.
August 11, 2009
Met with Danny Seidemann, founder of Ir Amin (City of Peoples), in Jerusalem (www.ir-amim.org.il). He’s a really good story teller and expert on the complex geo-political layers of this city. "This is where the conflict ends or it doesn’t end at all", he says. But adds the "Balkanization" of Jerusalem is making a two state solution impossible. Even so, h is cautiously optimistic, as is everyone we have met, due to the change in the US and Obama’s words, and the appointment of Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. Still, he is worried that Jerusalem is being turned into a "settler evangelical theme park." He has met with more US representatives in the last 30 days, than in the past eight years – such is the renewed interest in the issue.
Danny has been a key activist around the house evictions in Jerusalem. And he gets impassioned about the issue as he talks about the ongoing evictions and how the city is being divided. Later the same day we go on a field trip with Jeff Halper – a great Israeli activist too, whose organization works to prevent Palestinian house demolitions (http://www.icahd.org/eng/).
We inch along jammed streets in a high-density Palestinian neighbourhood, (no sidewalks) roads not fixed for years. We all pay the same taxes says Jeff – but in Palestinian areas there’s rare garbage pick-up, no postal service, no legal water hook ups etc. He takes us to a house being built by 60 young people mostly from Spain. They are building it in two weeks flat from scratch. The Spanish
I’m a city person and I love cities – the way they work, the way they are run, and how they grow. It comes from my municipal experience as a community organizer in the Downtown Eastside, itself a complex neighbourhood, as well as being a city councillor in Vancouver for five terms. But Jerusalem is quite something different – the contradictions are endless and generate much debate. Of course its historical and religious contexts are unique. But I’ve never seen a city where the roof top water tanks are colour coded to reflect who you are (white-Israeli, black- Palestinian). And a new transit line being contracted going through both Palestinian and Jewish neighbourhoods, but you won’t be able to get on or off in the Palestinian one.
The future of Jerusalem is core to everything, so I am glad I got to see, meet, experience, a little bit of what is happening here.
West Bank, August 9.
We had a very busy day in the West Bank.
There’s a lot to learn and absorb. A briefing from the Ramallah office of the Canadian government is really helpful. Ramallah itself, a centre of commerce and social activity on the West Bank, is bustling and busy. New buildings. We pass through Area C (still controlled by Israel administratively and policed by Israel). We are told that this means in effect, no regular policing.
Excellent briefing from Negotiations Support Unit of PLO. Settlements and their continued expansion are the single greatest threat to a viable and sovereign Palestinian State. Expansion continues and the impacts are real (as we are to see later in Bil’in). It means Palestinians don’t have access their land and resources around the settlements. Settlements now number about 170 with a population of close to half a million. The by-pass roads connecting them and the Wall, now two thirds constructed, means close to 90% of the settlements will be within the wall, even though they go far beyond the green line. The settlements are illegal under International Law. This system of segregation of Palestinian land, and over 600 check points in the West Bank, and a permit regime, is a major road block for a Palestinian state.
Later we meet with the Foreign Affairs Minister of the PA, a self described "moderate". He says Israel is implementing a clear policy of a "settler state" in the West Bank. We also talk about the situation in Gaza and he points out $4.4 Billion has been provided by the International Community to re-build Gaza where 25,000 homes were totally or partially destroyed in the war and bombing in December/January, but the materials for re-building are not getting in. UN reports on the ground have said that 860 truck loads are needed every day to go into Gaza to cope with the humanitarian disaster. But only a small percentage is allowed in by Israel.
Later on we have a lively discussion with Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian MP, who is critical of the way things are being done by the Fatah Party, the dominant party in control of the Palestinian Authority. He advocates for a more grass roots approach to support democratic development, rather than focussing on security issues. He has been supporting non-violent resistance to the occupation, and believes this must grow.
I have anticipated our visit to the small community of Bil’in, a village of about 1700 people 30 minutes from Ramallah. I met Mohammad Khatid, a leader in the village, in Ottawa and was so impressed with his leadership and work. He is now in jail. We met with other village representatives and their Israeli supporters and visited the site adjacent to the fence/wall, where they hold weekly demonstrations. The wall cuts through their land. The earth is scorched black from numerous tear gas cylinders and there is a terrible smell that makes you want to vomit. It’s the remains of "skunk water" they say. As many as 50 containers containing this skunk water are shot over by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), at a time, and once on you, will remain for weeks in your hair and skin. One villager tells us they have been terrorized by night arrests and the children are very scared and can’t sleep. Arrests are nothing new, they told us, but the focus of the security forces has increased since the court case in Montreal, where the village has taken 2 Canadian companies to court for building an extension to an illegal settlement next to the village. The village of Bil’in won a court case in Israel two years ago that the wall had to be moved so it doesn’t separate their land, but nothing has happened. "They are trying to kill popular non-violent resistance", but the villagers continue to pursue their case. We also meet a man whose brother died at the wall after being shot by IDF. His brother’s memorial is a few feet away – and he himself was arrested, and shot in the foot while handcuffed and blind folded. He has a warm smile and easy going manner which defies what he has experienced.
Villagers who are arrested face military court – and a much harsher legal system than the Israeli supporters who are arrested and face the regular Israeli system.
Mohammad is in jail – and we have requested to see him – but are told it will take 10 days at least. We will send him a message.
The Israeli supporter who works with the village gave a recent update, that last night (Sunday) the security forces came and harassed his family in their homes. His father was taken in for questioning. We will monitor what is going on.
Now off to Hebron (Monday). I was there in 2002 and am interested to see if it’s the same Mayor of Hebron that we met with then. We will also meet the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) folks.
Our first day in Jerusalem
August 8, 2009
Getting through the King Hussein crossing into the West Bank from Jordan took approx 1.5 hours and at least six different checks – but no problems. This evening (Saturday) was quite eventful. After being dropped off at our hotel by the Canadian office representative from Ramallah, the six of us (three MPs, and three from Code Pink) walked down the winding street towards the old city.
Without realizing it at first we walked through a small area where 67 Palestinians were recently "evicted" and Jewish settlers moved in immediately. Sabbath was almost over and the settlers were leaving prayers, in their long black robes. A young American woman told us of the daily events unfolding as three Palestinian families try to hold onto their homes(the latest in a number of ongoing evictions). The Hanoun family is sleeping on the street, a few short paces from their family home of many generations. Police and border guards arrive as tensions rise. You can feel the tension as settlers gather in small groups and the evicted families and supporters say one of them has been attacked. The police appear to push back the settlers from getting too close. We observe quietly and listen to the young woman whose family is now on the street. She explains that they were forcibly awakened in the early morning and put out of their homes. No time to gather belongings, and personal items. It seems lawless here – and the sense of uncertainty is all around.
We also learned that Mohammad Khatid and five others have been arrested from the village of Bi’lin for incitement to "damage the security of the area", http://palsolidarity.org/2009/08/7982 .
These are the villagers that have employed creative, non-violent strategies, against the barrier of the wall that dissects their village and land. We will be visiting the village. It seems hard to believe that Mohammad, who visited Parliament Hill and spoke with a few MPs, including me, in June is now in jail.
As you enter Jerusalem from the Allenby bridge the vista of illegal settlements on just about every hill top is surreal.