On the first anniversary of the war on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, close to 1,400 people from more than 40 countries came to Cairo, Egypt, planning to go to Gaza and help end the siege, a total blockade that began in 2007 and continues today. Many friends from around the world participated as part of this peace delegation. Unfortunately, under extreme pressure from Israel and perhaps the United States, the Egyptian government did not allow most of us to enter Gaza. About 90 from the Gaza Freedom March did get into Gaza from December 30 to January 2 and I was privileged to be part of that group.
The people of Gaza we met were so happy we had come, and also deeply appreciated the more than 1,300 others who were not allowed in but who marched in solidarity with us in Cairo. Gaza is like a large prison. The people of Gaza are all but completely cut off from the rest of the world. They cannot travel or visit relatives living outside the armed wall that borders all of Gaza, and family members and relatives living outside the area cannot visit their families in Gaza. Only very limited food and medical supplies are able to get in; building supplies and all the other necessities of life can not be imported, and no goods are exported.
The people are suffering severe trauma. During Operation Cast Lead a year ago, the Israeli military subjected the people of Gaza to horrendous violence for more than three weeks. Israeli air strikes killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Five thousand people were injured, and more than 50,000 were left homeless. While there, we saw massive destruction of thousands of homes, 700 factories or places of business, 24 mosques, 10 water or sewage lines, 34 health facilities including 8 hospitals, many schools and UN buildings, and millions of dollars in destroyed infrastructure. (During the attack 13 Israelis were killed by rockets shot from Gaza. See http://www.afsc.org/chicago/ht/aGetDocumentAction/i/85478 for more on the Crisis in Gaza.)
My dad, Ray Hartsough, worked in Gaza back in 1949 with American Friends Service Committee, distributing tents, food, and medicines to the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 Arab- Israeli War. It was particularly painful for me to realize that now, 61 years later, not only those refugees but also their children and grandchildren are still living in refugee camps in Gaza.
In one refugee camp we visited, which had been severely hit by the Israeli attack last year, we met a family who lost 28 of its extended family members in the attack. The mother shared her deep grief at the loss. There was nothing for the children to play with. There were holes in the roof of their small home through which rain flowed. The cement blocks in the upper part of the small house, which had suffered severe damage, were re-laid with mud after the bombing because no cement is allowed into Gaza. She had a picture on the wall of all her lost family members. How horrible for anyone to have to endure this tragic loss!
One small happy note was that a Veteran for Peace from New Mexico had brought 50 beautiful teddy bears, which we were able to give to some of the children in the camp. This brought great joy amidst all the destruction.
We visited schools where the children had such beautiful faces shining despite the ruins of their school buildings. In order to accommodate all of the students, the schools now have two shifts each day in the parts of the buildings, which were left standing after the siege, but there are only a bare minimum of school supplies. Building supplies are not allowed into Gaza to repair the schools or medical centers or homes, and they rarely get school supplies.
We visited an orphanage, supported by the Lutheran Church, where each child had lost both parents. It was very well organized and very neat; the children had clean clothes, adequate food, and even comfortable beds to sleep on that were decorated with beautiful stuffed animals. We had lunch with the children—each of us at a table with six of them. Although we were not able to communicate much with words, we did so with loving smiles.
One of the highlights of our time in Gaza was to have with us four Hasidic Orthodox Jewish rabbis from the organization Orthodox Jews Against Zionism, or Naturei Karta International. They were dressed with their black coats and black broad-brimmed hats and curls of hair down the sides of their faces, and were carrying a banner with a Palestinian flag and the message, “Judaism Demands Freedom for Gaza and All Palestine,” and buttons that said, “A Jew is not a Zionist.” The residents of Gaza were thrilled to meet these Jews who were committed to honoring the humanity of the Palestinian people and came all the way to Gaza to proclaim their support for the Palestinians and an end to the siege of Gaza.
The Gaza Freedom March, December 31, 2009
The original plan had been for the 1,340 internationals to join 50,000 Gazans on the Freedom March. However, under the new constraints, 90 of us marched to the Israeli border crossing called Erez, along with 1,000 Gazans. We brought our demands to the Israeli government to end the siege of Gaza, and let the people live!
I marched with two schoolteachers who were deeply moved that people from other parts of the world cared about their fate, and were willing to go through all the roadblocks and hurdles and expense to get into Gaza to join them. We marched through kilometer after kilometer of bombed-out homes, factories, and shops. We saw men gathering up the rubble, recycling the rebar, and grinding up smashed cement to make new cement to rebuild their homes and buildings.
One of the great joys for me was meeting Mustafa, from Gaza, whose father had worked with my dad and the Quakers in a refugee camp in Rafah back in 1949. The Quakers and the UN distributed food, tents, and medicine to over 250,000 refugees who had to flee their homes in the 1948 war. Mustafa, following in his dad’s footsteps, works for an NGO doing both humanitarian relief and training in conflict resolution, peacemaking, and active nonviolence.
It is so sad to think of the many generations of children who have had to grow up as refugees over these 61 years. Many families still have the keys to their original homes in what is now Israel, and keep them with the hope that someday they might be able to return there.
Some of our group went out with fishermen in their small fishing boats. Israel does not allow them to go out beyond 2.5 kilometers to fish, and there are few fish available so close to the shore. In the past they used to go out 60 km. If they ever stray beyond the imposed 2.5 km limit, they are often shot at by Israeli soldiers. When unarmed internationals are present on the boats, they offer some protection.
The farmers have a similar problem. Gaza’s most fertile land is close to the Israeli border. If the farmers cultivate too close to the wall that separates Gaza from Israel, they may be shot by Israeli soldiers.
NGOs in Gaza also feel pressure from Hamas, the elected Palestinian government there. A women’s NGO told us that because they were affiliated with Fatah, the other main Palestinian political party, they are given a hard time and sometimes even arrested. Others are closely watched. It is often said that people who have been oppressed often end up being oppressors to others.
Somehow we have to get out of this vicious circle of violence and oppression and counterviolence. All of us—Israelis, Palestinians, and people from the United States (whose government supports the Israeli régime and the war and siege of Gaza) must come to understand that security comes not through more arms and guns and oppression of others. It can only come by treating all people as children of God, and with respect and dignity as our brothers and sisters. If we could only understand this, the whole world would all be much more secure.
Even though we may not like the elected Hamas government, the United States needs to get clear on whether it really supports democracy and the right of people to elect their own government, or if we support democracy only when the people elect the government we would like them to vote for. Former President Jimmy Carter, who headed up an election monitoring mission during the Palestinian elections, said: “The elections were completely honest, completely fair, completely safe, and without violence.” Should the United States, Israel, and the rest of the world force the people of Gaza to suffer untold misery because we do not like their elected government? And is the Hamas government more terrorist than the U.S. government, which is raining bombs and death on the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan?
After all that I directly experienced, not only in Gaza but also in Palestine, the West Bank and Israel, I came firmly to believe that the United States needs to stop sending the more than $3 billion a year blank check to Israel. We in the United States are paying for the bombs, guns, bullets, planes, and bulldozers, and supporting the settlements in the West Bank that are taking away the homes and farmlands of the Palestinian people.
The whole world needs to bring pressure on Israel to end the siege of Gaza. We need to support Palestinians and Israelis engaged in nonviolent struggle to liberate Palestine from the occupation by Israel. I ask you to consider this important question: Wouldn’t U.S. taxpayer money be much better spent supporting Mustafa and others training Palestinian young people in conflict resolution and active nonviolence than in giving many billions of dollars to the Israeli government for more weapons, planes, ammunition, and the building of more walls? I hope you will join me in the growing worldwide movement to help end the siege of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine and the West Bank.