In the run-up to Annapolis Stuart Littlewood went to Gaza on an unusual mission. He joined a party of priests bringing moral support to the Christian community and to its Muslim citizens, all suffering horribly under Israel’s collective punishment and cruel siege .
November 29, 2007
Traffic into Gaza through the elaborate new border 'facility' at Erez is down to a tiny trickle these days since Israel branded the Palestinian seaside enclave a 'hostile entity’. The purpose of our visit was to bring moral support to elderly Fr Manuel, who ministers to his flock, runs an excellent school (for Christians and Muslims) and is revered as a local hero. Should he ever leave Gaza the Israeli authorities will not allow his return, so he has allowed himself to be incarcerated there for 9 years. He’d had no visitors since February and when he heard we were coming, said a colleague, he burst into tears.
We also wanted to show solidarity with the whole courageous population, Muslim and Christian, and apologise for the British government’s indifference to Israel’s military onslaught, the spiteful economic sanctions and the west’s meddling in Palestine’s democratic affairs.
Thanks to our noisy arrival at breakneck speed through Gaza’s streets with a police escort and sirens blaring – that's VIP treatment here - our small group quickly grew into a media circus. The Rafah crossing into Egypt, now permanently closed, then followed the barrier wall down to the sea and the coast road back to Gaza City. On the way I noted the deserted beaches and the disused fishing boats. Israel has banned fishing off the Gaza coast, ruined the livelihoods of 3000 licensed fishermen and their families, and impoverished the local diet.
The military fires on boats that defy the ban. Palestinians are also prevented from developing maritime trade or natural resources within their territorial waters. Gaza is just 365 sq km - 45 km long, up to12 km wide and entirely sealed from the outside world by an Israeli fence guarded by watchtowers, snipers and tanks. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, coastal waters and airwaves. A vast prison with air-strikes, beach shelling, troops, tanks, armoured bulldozers, uncaring of civilian casualties.
Whilst much has been blasted into rubble or skeletal remains, this was once an attractive place and many fine buildings survive. So does the defiant community, though wearied by years of humiliation and occupation. Gaza could easily blossom into a coastal paradise; a prosperous, independent trading state. But Israel's hatred of Gaza and its people is terrifying. The economy is strangulated and for 1.5 million souls, life is hell.
Fuel and candles are running out. Supplies of basics are exhausted, so even hygiene is fast becoming impossible. Power cuts disrupt hospital treatment and what few drugs there are cannot be kept refrigerated. Many look death in the face as medi-care collapses.
Flour to make bread has doubled in price; cement for concrete to repair damaged homes and infrastructure has gone up 1,000 percent! Some schools are having to teach three shifts a day. It is truly a humanitarian crisis, as the UN and various charities have repeatedly warned western governments. A friend emailed: "Today in Gaza ... we have no cement to build graves for those who die."
A communiqué received from the Ministry of Health in Gaza reveals the stark reality:
Cancer patients: Of 450 patients 35% are children and 25% women. They are forbidden to leave Gaza for medical treatment or surgery. For many, there is no medication because cancer drugs cannot cross the border.
Renal Failure patients:400 should undergo dialysis three times a week, but machine break-downs have cut this to twice a week, with serious consequences for patients.
Hemodialysis machines: Of 69 machines in 4 hospitals 20 are out of order. Israel blocks supply of spares deeming them not humanitarian items. 3 more have exceeded their design
Cardiac patients:400-450 patients suffer from severe shortage of drugs.
No spares can be shipped in for therapeutic and diagnostic equipment that breaks down.
Stock levels Zero stock of 85 items of essential medical drugs.
* Zero stock of 12 items of essential psychiatric drugs.
* 2 weeks’ stock of anaesthetics for surgery, after which the theatres will close down.
* Zero stock of X-ray bags and sterilization bags.* Near zero stock of stationery: medical files and examination forms. These are re-used several times risking errors in documentation.
* Severe shortage of cloth and dressings, barely enough body bags and hospital bed covers.
* Zero stocks of patients' food in all hospitals.
* 2 weeks’ stock of hospital cleaning fluids. * Diesel and gas stocks for under 15 days.
* Severe shortages of medical disposables, lab materials and blood bank materials.
The total number of people who died as a result of the border closure since June has risen to 44. Prevention of patients from traveling and prevention of entry of food, milk formula and fuel is an organized crime committed by the Israeli occupation to exhaust and destroy the health sector, as part of the Israeli policy to kill and humiliate our people," conclude the Health Ministry.
Physicians for Human Rights, have attempted to bring seriously ill residents out of Gaza for proper hospital treatment, but even requests on behalf of advanced cancer cases are invariably refused. So they die in agony. 20 year-old Nail Al Kurdi, succumbed only a week ago, still waiting for permission to cross. For five months PHR submitted request after request to let him through, and even petitioned the High Court of Justice, but each time he was refuse "for security reasons". Two days later an 8 year-old boy also died waiting for medical treatment in Israel. I’m told he had the necessary permit but was repeatedly turned back at the border.
It is estimated that a thousand patients – advanced cases of kidney disease and cancer and those badly injured by Israeli air-strikes - need immediate transfers. In the meantime (UK) Channel 4 News reports, Israel blackmails chronically sick patients. If they agree to inform on relatives and friends they can cross the border for treatment… if not they can "stay in Gaza and die".
The International Committee of the Red Cross repeatedly reminds that Israel is obliged under international law to ensure that humanitarian supplies reach Palestinian civilians. Yet I learned that medicinal drugs purchased with money from sales of my book 'Radio Free Palestine', could not be delivered and would have to be smuggled in somehow.
On 11th October, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Israeli government to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip and fulfill its international obligations guaranteeing the flow of humanitarian aid, and assistance and essential services.
Luisa Morgantini, Vice President of the European Parliament, said: "I was recently in Gaza and I saw how the Strip is suffocating in a serious humanitarian crisis due to the raids and the closure imposed by the Israeli Army: massive devastation of public facilities and private homes, the disruption of hospitals, clinics and schools, the denial of access to proper drinking water, food and electricity, and the destruction of agricultural land wanted by Israel, create a true catastrophe for civilians. ..."
The EU has demanded that the Israeli government fully respects human rights and international law and ends not only the emergency in Gaza but also the military occupation of the West Bank, where Israel continues its theft of Palestinian land with impunity. Instead of complying, Israel has declared Gaza a 'hostile entity’ and ratcheted-up the misery,announcing that "additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime.
Hamas was democratically elected as the Palestinian government in 2006, thus a legitimate power, while Israel is an illegal armed occupier. As to whether Hamas a 'terrorist organisation'… let’s first check the definition of terrorism. PHR investigated the effects of ammunition used by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza and the West Bank. They found that the high-velocity 5.56mm/.223 calibre round fired by the M-16 weapon, widely used by the IDF, "tends to break open on impact causing a 'lead storm’ in tissue, even without impacting a bone… and large temporary cavities, and extensive damage to muscle, nerves and blood vessels, as well as fracture. The massive tissue destruction… produces a frightening clinical presentation which greatly challenges the surgeons.
When there are many such injuries, medical resources are stressed to the limit." The majority of victims of these injuries will have permanent damage in the affected leg. Witness reports to PHR team and information to other human rights organizations, suggest those injured in this manner ( were unarmed) and at most throwing stones."
As guests in this tight-knit Gaza community we had been invited for coffee at the House of Fatah and the residence of Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya. Relations between religious and political factions seem friendly and good humoured and they stand together against a merciless enemy.
There is broadly no trouble between Muslims and Christians - a small miracle considering that their tormentor has powerful Christian backing. As the whirlwind visit came to an end taking our leave entailed the wrench of saying goodbye to brave people the west has trampled and written off, then running the gauntlet of Israel’s horrendous border security. It was back to Erez and its state-of-the-art de-humanisation, to shuffle through a maze of steel gates, cattle pens and a sinister X-ray machine, on Israeli command, and queue interminably for questioning by the rudest people on earth.
Only 50 or 60 people had gone through the crossing that day, so the 3-hour hold-up was entirely down to Israeli bloody-mindedness. Complaining to Her Majesty’s Government seems pointless: the responsible British foreign office Minister is a former chairman of Labour Friends of Israel.
In spite of all. There is astonishing pride and resilience among the Gazans. However if you kick, murder and starve and commit crimes against humanity often enough, a victory of sorts can be yours. But tell us, Mr Gordon Brown, why is Britain complicit in such a base and cowardly scheme? We hit bottom in Iraq… how much lower can we sink?
Gaza was formerly under British mandate, surely sufficient reason to feel special responsibility for its wellbeing. Yet it is not even on the government's agenda at Annapolis. For Gazans, the "final status negotiations" was a sick joke. So I urge the British government: "Go see for yourselves the misery, the human tragedy and the devastation you have heaped on these people. Then amaze us. Lift this cruel siege and end 90 years of betrayal that has so shamed Britain."
"Land supplies on Gaza’s empty beach: Palestinian territorial waters. Suspend all trade association agreements until Israel complies with UN resolutions and International Court of Justice rulings, ends its unlawful occupation and withdraws behind pre-1967 borders. Realise that Israel is no western-style democracy but a ruthless ethnocracy. And when British voters finally discover that half their MPs are signed-up Friends of Israel, they will question how such slavish devotion to this foreign military power can possibly be in the best interest of our Christian and increasingly Muslim-inclusive, nation."
To the Bush administration and its admirers: "You may be the most powerful but you are the most hated. Watch out when decent Americans finally understand what their tax dollars have been paying for in the Holy Land." And, lastly, to church leaders in western Christendom: "Are you going to sit there while the Holy Land is stolen from under your noses?"