‘The day that Gaza is free’

27 Oct

International Aid Convoy to Gaza

Days 35-37: 22-24 October 2010

Momen Faiz Qraiqea lost his legs in an Israeli helicopter strike 21 months ago

Momen Faiz Qraiqea could be the face of Gaza. With both legs shot off by an Apache helicopter crew from across the border during Israel’s bloody mauling of Gaza 21 months ago, the photojournalist is still doing his job from a wheelchair.

Kia Ora Gaza volunteers meet Momen at an official reception the day after the international aid convoy reaches the besieged Palestinian enclave.

“Momen thanked our Kiwi Team for coming to Gaza with the convoy,” reports team captain Roger Fowler. “He was deeply appreciative of the international support, and looked forward to the day that Gaza is free.”

Kiwi captain Roger Fowler greets Momen Qraiqea

The day that Gaza is free. That’s a universal motif in the comments of everyone in Gaza, whether they’re top politicians or grassroots people. And no wonder.

“Behind every door there’s a horror story,” says Roger.

The Kiwi captain and a UK volunteer knock randomly on the door of a refugee house near the bombed-out port of Gaza. They meet Deyab Mohammed and his mother, wife and two young sons.

Deyab Mohammed at his front door with Roger Fowler

Deyab was smashed in the head with an Israeli rifle butt during Tel Aviv’s last invasion of Gaza. Severe brain injuries left him unable to talk and walk properly, or to concentrate. His mother moved in to help care for the kids so his wife could do the paid work that Deyab was now incapable of doing.

The family receives a small pension from the Ministry of Social Affairs, which Deyab’s mum describes as “never enough”. They have no drinking water, since the dribble that oozes from their tap is too salty.

“This was one of the first areas hit,” the old lady says of Israel’s military blitz. “The attacks have affected all of us, especially the children. We still feel threatened.”

Roger Fowler with Deyab Mohammed and his mother, wife and sons

Lying alongside the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and its picturesque beaches, Gaza is a land of the legless, the armless, the eyeless and the emotionally ravaged. A land of cripples who refuse to give in to their injuries.

Typical is Sayid Saber Salem, whose house was shelled twice by the Israelis, leaving him without a left arm and right eye and with crippling injuries to his right trunk. Yet Sayid remains active in the political movement to free Gaza.

Sayid Saber Salem and Roger Fowler

Gaza is also a land of shabby ruins. Everywhere are derelict or damaged homes, health centres, schools, mosques, sewage and water facilities, drinking wells, roads, bridges, power grids, factories, orchards, greenhouses, farms and other infrastructure.

At least 50,000 people were left homeless by missiles and bombs, tank shells, artillery fire, armoured bulldozers and other high-tech barbarities during Israel’s three-week invasion of Gaza in early 2009.

Running water was cut to half a million Gazans, while one million were deprived of electric power.

Gaza graveyard dug up and destroyed by Israeli military bulldozers

They were the lucky ones. 1,390 Gazans were killed by Tel Aviv’s onslaught, 759 of them civilians, including several hundred children. War was even waged upon the dead, with Israel demolishing graves in a bid to wipe out the historical memory of the people they oppress.

Seeing a cement factory bombed into ruins leads Malaysian team leader Asra Banu to comment: “Gaza’s economy is specifically targeted by Israel.”

That’s why all Gaza’s exports are banned by Israel to this day. The only way to export products is through 1,500 illegal tunnels under the border to Egypt, frequently bombed by the Israeli air force.

Gaza tunneler at work. Some of the 1,500 tunnels to Egypt are big enough to transport cars.

Despite the inventive genius of its people, Gaza’s economy remains in a coma. Unemployment is around 40% of the labour force, while dire poverty stalks at least 80% of the population. Israel controls Gaza’s tax system, denying the Hamas government its rightful levies needed to kickstart the economy.

Yet Israeli propaganda pretends things are rosy in Gaza.

On Friday, in response to the international aid convoy breaking the siege of Gaza, the Israeli Embassy in Wellington declares that “there is no lack of any goods in Gaza and certainly no humanitarian crisis whatsoever”.

Israel's siege of Gaza fosters humanitarian crises

The embassy claim is as silly as it is outrageous. Let’s take the example of water, a basic necessity for human survival.

Here’s what Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said about Gaza’s water in August 2010: “Almost 95% of the water pumped in the Gaza Strip is polluted and unfit for drinking. This warning was recently issued by the UN Environment Programme, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility and international aid organisations.”

And why can’t this humanitarian crisis be fixed? B’Tselem reports: “Since it began its siege of the Gaza Strip, in June 2007, Israel has forbidden the entry of equipment and materials needed to rehabilitate the water and wastewater treatment systems there. The prohibition has remained despite the recent easing of the siege.”

This example can be multiplied many times over. Acute crises bedevil the power grid, sewage system, health and education services, housing stock, job market and many other areas of Gazan society. It’s all well documented by believable experts.

Gaza City at night, with lights run off generators because the power supply is so erratic. On the horizon are the well-powered lights of Israel.

The main factors keeping outright collapse and starvation at bay are large-scale smuggling through illegal tunnels, illicit funding by other Middle East states, aid supplies from UN-aligned organisations and equalising distribution by Gaza’s government.

Tel Aviv’s severe import embargos have been sporadically eased following global outrage at Israel’s murderous terrorism on the Gaza aid ship Mavi Marmara last May. Nine Turkish civilian volunteers were shot to death, some execution style, and another 50 wounded in a blaze of gunfire from Israeli commandos.

Despite receiving a faster trickle of imports through Israeli-controlled gateways, Gaza remains a land of the imprisoned.

Inhabiting a mere 250 square kilometres after factoring in Israel’s free fire zone, the entire population of 1.5 million souls is locked in by bleak walls and razor wire, automated machine guns, militarised border crossings, maritime blockade and aerial siege.

Jewish children’s advocate Lillian Rosengarten is appalled by “the prosperous Jewish state that lives alongside a walled, collectively punished society of Palestine, under siege, in deplorable despair”. It’s “pure racism”, she declares on Saturday, a “state of apartheid”.

One of many fishing boats beached at Gaza City because the Israeli Navy enforces a tiny fishing zone. Fishermen who stray outside this zone are fired on by the blockading navy, often with fatal consequences.

Farmers, fishermen and even children are frequently killed for coming too close to the invisible, and changeable, boundaries of a free fire zone that Israel has carved out of Gaza’s territory. According to UN figures, the free fire zone swallows up one-third of Gaza’s farmland.

Within Gaza’s dangerous borders, every newborn child gets an automatic life sentence, with no right of appeal. And here, life means life. There’s no remission for good behaviour.

In July 2010, Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron criticised Israel’s blockade, declaring: “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”

But the state of Israel scorned their traditional ally’s words. The Israeli Embassy in London responded: “The people of Gaza are the prisoners of the terrorist organisation Hamas.”

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (left) and his foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar discuss the situation in Gaza and questions of international solidarity with Kiwi convoyer Julie Webb-Pullman (right) and UK volunteer Pippa Bartolotti

In 2006, however, the people of Gaza had elected a Hamas government in a poll declared free and fair by overseas observers. Refusing to accept this democratic verdict, the Tel Aviv regime tightened its decades-old noose around Gaza into a life-sapping blockade.

And Israel’s military blasted 14,000 heavy artillery shells into Gaza, while resistance forces returned fire with 3,000 homemade rockets. In this long exchange, the balance of casualties lay heavily in Israel’s favour.

When the blockade and the shelling didn’t kill Gaza’s elected government, Israel without warning unleashed a full-scale ground, air and sea attack on 27 December 2008.

Parliament Buildings in Gaza City were bombed 13 times by Israeli F-16 jets

One target in Gaza City was Parliament Buildings, gutted by Israeli air force raids.

In the shadow of those ruined buildings, close to 400 volunteers from the Gaza aid convoy gather for a state welcome on Friday. They originate from 30 countries, and have driven thousands of kilometres in 150 vehicles to deliver medical supplies and other humanitarian aid worth NZ$7 million.

At the speaker’s podium, convoy director Kevin Ovenden highlights the hypocrisy of Western politicians who preach democracy, yet ignore Israel’s attack on Parliament Buildings in Gaza.

Convoyers flash peace signs on the steps of Gaza City's main mosque

Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, had earlier welcomed convoyers in a mosque sermon.

The “magnificent” convoy is a “blow to the Israeli siege and international organisations which remain silent,” Mr Haniyeh declares. “Gaza needs more convoys.”

On Friday evening, at a “convoy honouring festival”, the prime minister awards plaques and medals to convoy managers and team leaders.

Nicci Enchmarch, project director of Viva Palestina, receives a medal from prime minister Ismail Haniyeh

Here, in a shell-pocked municipal hall, Kevin gives a forward-looking speech.

“Events are heading in our direction,” notes the convoy director. “Our brothers murdered on the Mavi Marmara paid a terrible price, but it’s resulted in a change in world public opinion. We all know the military power of Israel. But their political capital is now lower than ever. Their friendly face has gone. They now have ugly faces.”

Kevin points to an intertwined factor. “The historical alliances that sustained Israel are breaking down. The Turkish people are now solidly against Israel. And Israel is becoming more of a liability to the US, rather than an asset. I’m not saying the US and Israel will divorce tomorrow, but it’s not a happy marriage.”

In these changing times, he continues, the international movement for a free Palestine needs to get cracking. “We need to build the movement with more convoys, flotillas and boycotts. This is the turning point.”

Kevin’s inspirational sentiments are greeted with chants from the packed crowd: “Free Palestine! Free Palestine!”

Kevin Ovenden (left) and Zaher Birawi, two of the convoy's leaders

On Saturday, convoyers spread out in different directions to survey Gaza.

Some Kiwis and other volunteers visit an orphanage, where a teacher pulls them into a scratch soccer game with his local club. Roger is hastily appointed as the convoy team’s “manager”.

To roars of delight from hundreds of soccer-mad kids, Roger proclaims the match as evidence of international friendship for the people of Gaza. “You have friends all over the world,” he adds, as cheers from a growing crowd merge with the start-of-play whistle.

It’s a hard-fought match, and the 5-all draw seems a perfect finish to the first international game played by this little club in Gaza.

Kiwi volunteer Mousa Taher introduces convoyers to Gazan orphans

Kiwi volunteer Julie Webb-Pullman heads to a girls secondary school where she delivers letters from senior school girls in Auckland.

“I’ve got a bunch of letters from the Gaza girls to bring back to the Auckland girls,” reports Julie. “We may have started a great exchange here.”

Other convoyers join an international conference about the 8,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails, often without fair trial or legal advice. Bestial tortures are inflicted upon many prisoners, including kids not yet in their teens.

Attending the conference are many women carrying photos of their loved ones killed or incarcerated by Israel. It’s a heart-breaking sight.

Gazan women with photos of loved ones killed or jailed by Israel

A few volunteers visit some of the 1,500 illegal tunnels from Gaza’s border settlement of Rafah into Egypt. These tunnels help Gaza survive the Israeli blockade which Cairo has long been helping to enforce.

Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt is on the way to building an underground steel barrier to block off Gaza’s tunnels. Yet strong winds are blowing in the opposite direction, evidenced by Cairo’s decision to grant the convoy free access to Gaza after a tense ten-day standoff.

Suddenly Cairo’s longstanding policy on Gaza is starting to look as full of holes as the well-tunneled Egyptian soil. Is Egypt’s anti-Hamas pact with Israel breaking down? Just having to ask the question suggests that change is in the wind.

Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak

On Friday comes a bombshell revelation by Andrew Whitley, retiring director of the United Nations Refugee & Works Agency. He says that “all governments, whether they admit it or not, have had discrete contact with Hamas”.

A senior Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzouk, confirms that his movement has been talking to Western governments. It appears the official US stance of isolating Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation is failing badly.

And serious negotiations appear to be well underway between warring Palestinian factions. Fatah, dominant in the West Bank, and Hamas, stronger in Gaza, may be edging towards a historic common platform.

Walid Al-Awad, politburo of Palestinian People's Party

On Saturday, Palestinian People’s Party politburo member Walid Al-Awad reports “intensified contacts by Palestinian factions and Arab figures”.

On the same day, Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasma says there is agreement between his faction and Hamas on pursuing a deal with Israel based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as their capital and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The political legitimacy of Hamas appears to be on the rise, while Israel’s moral standing in the world has taken a self-inflicted beating.

Kiwi convoyer Pat O'Dea (hand raised) meets kids in Gaza

Behind these historic shifts lies a keystone constant: the persistence of Palestinians in their 62-year struggle for freedom.

“What the people of Gaza symbolise, together with the hundreds of humanitarians who have travelled from all over the world, is the persistence of resistance,” declares Jamal Elshayyal, an essayist with Al Jazeera English, on the day after the convoyers leave Gaza.

“The persistence to go to school in portacabins, the persistence to drive cars using cooking oil, the persistence to cross the seas despite the best efforts of the Israeli navy, the persistence to build houses out of mud, the persistence to hope for a better tomorrow. That is the persistence of resistance.”

That sense of Palestinian persistence is taken away by convoyers as they depart Gaza on Sunday. It’s a big part of their life-altering experience over the last 37 days on the long road to Gaza. And now they’re taking it home.

This bulletin was compiled by Grant Morgan from the field reports of Kiwi Team members, Viva Palestina Malaysia, Azra to Gaza blog, B’Tselem website, Aqsa Syarif blog, Ma’an News Service, Mondoweiss website, Middle East Monitor, Wikipedia, Jerusalem Post and the Israeli Embassy in Wellington, along with photos by Hone Fowler and Khaled Ayyad. If you wish to communicate with our Kia Ora Gaza team, email grantmorgan@paradise.net.nz

Roger Fowler locks up his Kia Ora Gaza vehicle in Gaza. It's time to head home.

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